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On the job
Despite all my Mister Rogers aversions, itís official: Iíve been uniformed

Iím ready to admit it: up until my third-grade discovery of back-to-back reruns of Threeís Company (RIP, John Ritter), I was a closet PBS fan. Every day after school, Iíd settle in with some plastic-y fruit item that Iíd tricked my mom into buying, put my feet up, and enjoy a solid hour of Big Bird and friends. But after my Muppet-induced high, I was always disappointed by the cold, hard reality that followed: Mister Rogersí Neighborhood. Even as a seven-year-old, I recognized that there was nothing entertaining about work, especially other peopleís work. The baker, the mailman, the plumber: these characters paled in comparison to the roller-skating pigs and two-headed monsters that lived on Sesame Street. Even with fruit roll-ups to sweeten the deal, I failed to see the intrigue in paper routes, couldnít help but lose my patience with Mr. Rogersís cardigan sweaters. I could almost smell the mothballs.

Years later, after rendezvousing with various dead-end jobs, I contemplated my future in Mister Rogersí NeighborhoodĖlike terms. Social worker, writer, teacher. After a spicy meal, Iíd get creative: linguist, psychologist, doula. In my head, I tried on professional garb as though dressing one of those David refrigerator magnets. And of course, all the incarnations looked ridiculous. I mean, I had worn unforgettable uniforms ó one of which, from an old-fashioned ice-cream shop, inspired a perennial Halloween costume my friends call "Flo" ó but I had never committed to these uniforms for life. As I looked through graduate-school catalogues, I couldnít help but feel myself edging toward a Village PeopleĖtype identity: Iíd go to bed in a hardhat until the end of my days.

Yes, it was partly the fear of wearing sensible shoes and putting my hair in a bun that made me handle the applications for teaching programs so gingerly. But my fear of professional commitment wasnít limited to the literal uniform ó it extended to the figurative one as well. I got nauseated when I thought of how many times a day Iíd say, "How do you feel about that?" if I were to become a therapist, and of the alphabet soup ó LCSW? MSW? LMFT? ó Iíd throw around each day as a social worker.

In the end, I ignored my aversion to superfluous scarves, my inability to utter the words "sit down and be quiet" with a straight face, and applied to a masterís-of-education program. Iíve now spent four of the most engaging, challenging, and rewarding months of my life preparing and beginning to teach. The earnestness of this sentiment both excites and terrifies me. If you had told me a year ago that I would one day be heard uttering such an unabashedly sincere career-related statement, I probably would have responded, "Have you met me yet?"

But thereís no escaping it: Iíve been uniformed. Iím an official inhabitant of Mister Rogersí Neighborhood, and as you might imagine, itís not always pretty. First, Iíve picked up the habit of nodding encouragingly all the time, making me appear either hopped up on Prozac or autistic. It is one of the myriad disturbing "better left in school" behaviors that seem to have befallen my fellow student teachers, one of whom was recently reprimanded by a bartender for raising her hand to order a drink.

Second, I find myself analyzing the US educational system two drinks into a Friday night. Which is okay when Iím with my teacher friends, who are amped by the schools-versus-prisons debate. For everyone else, itís a serious buzzkill. And remembering how uninterested my seven-year-old self was in the mailman on Mister Rogersí Neighborhood, I donít blame them. Before I became boring and one-dimensional, I too thought work was the runt of conversation topics, a last resort to be used only in the most dire circumstances. Now, I canít stop talking pedagogy, even when everyone else is focusing on Pabst.

Third, Iíve started wearing strange and scary clothing. As I mentioned, before graduate school I was well aware of the pitfalls of teacher dress. So frump-phobic were my classmates and I that we agreed to set up a J.Jill monitoring system, set off by earth-tone linen, culottes, turtleneck dresses, and any combination thereof. And while Iíve thus far avoided these sins, other suspect habits have surfaced. For example, in order to comply with my schoolís "no gang colors" rule, Iíve taken to wearing purple and pink, so that I resemble an overgrown first-grader. Also, after the director of our program warned us that our lives would be hell if any of our students caught sight of "one of these new thong things," my waistband has been chafing my ribs. "There should be no sign that you are in any way a sexual person!" the director had continued, half jokingly, as she fingered the keys hung around her neck. And, scared as we are of appearing geriatric 40-odd years before our time, we try to comply.

So thereís my confession. Iíve entered the phone booth of graduate school, made a quick change, and come out unrecognizable. But while I may not be looking my cutest when I walk to work, what I didnít realize about being a uniformed member of Mister Rogersí Neighborhood is that if youíre in the right profession, you donít really care. Youíre too busy amusing yourself and boring your friends with the inner workings of work. Pink and purple become your new black. One-dimensional and boring never seemed so sexy.

Talk teaching ó and nothing else ó with Rebecca Wieder at rebezca@juno.com

Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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