Tuesday, 13 October 2009

A Gown, With Hugs and Kisses

"Mary, do you have your gown?" one of my colleagues asks me.

"Of course I do," I am able to answer with a touch of smugness. I know why he asked me: last time we had to parade through town in our academic gowns, I happened to forget mine. No way am I going to get caught without it this time, though -- I'm on top of things! This time I'm going to be all cool and calm composure. This time I'm going to get it right.

My colleague cranes his neck. "Where is it, then?"

"It's in the car," I tell him. "I'm going to change into it this evening, right before the parade."

Some years back, the powers that be at our university decided that it would be a fine thing for all the faculty members to parade through the town in academic gowns with collars, just like the dons at Cambridge and Oxford. Our university is such a far cry from Cambridge and Oxford it just isn't true, but nevertheless, the entire teaching staff has been required to do this. The university has considerately provided each one of us with a voluminous black polyester gown and fancy collar. Every faculty's collar has a different color scheme; ours is maroon and blue. We go downtown in these hideous garments and swan around in a parade for all the townspeople to admire. Already hot and tired after a day of teaching, we march all the way down to a statue of Atatürk, where we stand through a long ceremony and sing the Turkish national anthem. Last year, I forgot my gown and ended up having a miserable, sweaty time of it, running back to the office to get it. By the time it was over, you could have wiped the floor with me and I wouldn't have noticed.

My colleague is frowning. "Your gown's in the car? You didn't forget the opening ceremony, did you? You need it for that too, you know."

Oh my God. I feel the blood drain from my head: I did forget! We are supposed to wear it to the opening ceremony too, which happens to be fifteen minutes from now.

"You have time to get it," my colleague says helpfully. No I don't: the parking lot is a good long walk away and it's very hot outside. Moreover, the car is locked and my husband has the key. And he's teaching right now. He would not welcome a sweaty, panting wife turning up in his classroom, asking for the car keys.

"Why don't you go to the book store and ask them if you can borrow one?" another colleague suggests.

"Do you think they'd really mind if I didn't wear it this time?" I say by way of an answer, though I have little hope.

She gives me a hard look and shakes her head. "They'd mind. They'd notice."

So the bookstore it is.

The bookstore is barely five minutes away, but I seem to know half the people who are crowding the walkway as I sprint along. "Mary teacher!" one girl calls out joyfully, grabbing my hands and kissing both sides of my face. "This is my mother!" A woman who looks far too young to be the mother of a 19-year-old smiles at me. "Hello Mary teacher!" another boy calls out just as I've managed to extract myself from the girl and her mother, "I am happy to see you!"

Everybody is happy to see me, it seems. I wish they wouldn't be: my five-minute walk has stretched to ten minutes and I feel so rude, rushing by grinning ex-students with fond memories. By the time I get to the bookstore, I am a sweaty, huffing, puffing mess. I have shaken two dozen hands and received double that many kisses.

Miraculously, the long line I observe with a sinking heart diminishes quickly and I am waited on almost immediately. I explain my dilemma as quickly as I can, but the kind young man at the counter doesn't understand that I don't want to be issued a gown, I merely want to borrow one. "I'll give it right back," I assure him. "I've already got one."

He has obviously kitted out lots of faculty members today. "Gown," he says smartly. He disappears and returns with a brand new gown and the sign-out book. Uh oh: if he checks this against my department, he will see that I already have one. I will have to try to explain -- again -- that I just want to borrow the gown, and by the time he's figured it out, the opening ceremony will be well underway.

But bless him, he does not check my name, he nods as I sign, and I am now the proud owner of another polyester gown. I quickly put it on, pull the wretched collar over my head, and sprint out the door.

The five-minute run from the bookstore to the assembly hall is not a pleasant one. On a hot day, a full-length black polyester gown is not a comfortable piece of clothing, especially when it's worn over your own clothes. When you're running in it, it's even nastier. I'm not a naturally sweaty person; I can run for a mile before you can tell on my clothes, but even a soda cracker would sweat in black polyester. When I finally get to the assembly hall, I am a sweaty, miserable mess. You could wipe the floor and clean your car with me and I would not bat an eye. But -- hallelujah! -- I am on time. And I'm wearing my gown.

Too bad we're not going to be here next year. I'm sure I'd get it right.



Patrick said...


Postman said...

An entertaining read. I can sympathize. I can't recall how many times I forgot my wristwatch or a vital textbook (not as important as a gown, but still necessary for teaching) with only 10 minutes to go before the start of class, and had to run back to my apartment through the suicidally hot and sticky Korean summer air guiltily dodging students who hailed me on the streets, to return to class soaked (literally soaked) in sweat and panting like a horse. Not the most dignity-conducive situation. I hope the parade went well...?

Vijaya said...

Mary, I need a floor washed and
the dog is wondering why I'm laughing my head off. Okay, back to work. Ahem.

Miss Footloose said...

Fun story! And I was sweating just reading it! Just as well you won't be there next year, even if you do think you'll remember.

Miss Footloose
Tales of the Globetrotting Life

Helen said...

Heh heh - good one Mary. I have a decidedly amusing vision of a large, sweaty, frantic rubbish bag on legs sprinting down one of those "avenue of honour" type scenarios where everyone wants to touch you. Thanks - this should keep me sniggering most of the day. And you thought you were so organised.......damn that opening ceremony! If it hadn't been for that, I'm sure you would have looked very composed, elegant, fresh, together, dignified, etc etc (tee hee).

MG Higgins said...

Wonderful story! You had me on the edge of my seat, wondering if you'd make it back in time. I'm relieved that you did.

Robin said...

Yay! You made it! I am the sweatiest person I know, and am impressed by you even daring to slip on that black polyester gown. I would be like the wicked witch of the west - nothing left but a splot.

Why won't you be there next year? Moving to Pennsylvania, are you? What fun we'll have!

Travis Erwin said...

At least so many ex students want to talk to you. That has to make you feel good.

A Paperback Writer said...

Another minor miracle accomplished by sweat and stress.
Congratulations on making it through. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Oh man, I hate wearing those things. And I do every year at least twice.

kara said...

so the trick is...also remember a bathing suit next year.

Mary Witzl said...

Patrick -- Yeah, I think it's funny now too. At the time, I was hard put to see the humor in it.

Postman -- I spent the hotter part of a summer in Korea once and I got through a lot of barley tea. A 10-minute run becomes a real ordeal when the air is as thick as oatmeal. And it doesn't do a lot for your dignity, does it?

Vijaya -- You need a floor wiped? Then I'm your woman! Let me just go and get my gown on...

Miss Footloose -- I'm still sweating actually. But that has more to do with the weather than reading my story. I can't wait for autumn!

Helen -- You saw pretty much what really happened. Normally I can walk unmolested through the corridors and down the walkway with only the occasional wave or greeting. But this time I might as well have been Angelina Jolie on the way to Oscar night. I always see myself as sedate and well prepared, but in the end, the emotional disorganization I tend to be mired in swallows me right up.

MG -- By the time I slid into my seat and pulled out my notebook to fan myself, I felt like an Olympic athlete crossing the finish line. And in some respects, I looked like one too...

Robin -- I felt very much like the Wicked Witch of the West in that nasty gown. It's already been washed: I didn't even look to see what came out in the water.

Pennsylvania? The land of (some of) my ancestors? You find us a couple of teaching jobs in Pennsylvania and we'll be there in a hurry!)

Travis -- On any normal day, having the students greet me so joyfully would have made me very happy; most of the time, they just slink by me with the merest of nods ("Eww, it's her -- she'll make us speak English!") I'll bet they only chatted me up because they sensed I didn't have time to talk.

APW -- Thank you. It felt like a minor miracle all right. It's the little hurdles I manage to leap over during the day that give me such satisfaction.

Charles -- You have to wear a gown too? POOR YOU! Because as hot as it was here, I can imagine it would be even worse in Louisiana. I'll never forget driving through there in July once, with no air conditioning in the car and a window that didn't want to be rolled down.

Kara -- Whoooa...me running down the corridors in a bikini: that REALLY makes me break out in a cold sweat!

Aledys Ver said...

Hi, Mary!

Thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a kind comment!

This story was fun to read. I felt sorry for you running all the way to find a -black- gown in the Turkish heat! :) Coming from a place where summer is the longest season of the year with unrelenting temperatures above 35 (and more likely to reach 45), I know what you meant with "you could have wiped the floor with me and I wouldn't have noticed". haha


Bish Denham said...

GAK! I so dislike polyester. In hot climes it's the worst. I feel your discomfort!

Falak said...

Black polyester gown in the heat = torture. Having lived in the UAE most of my life where anything below 35 degree celcius in the summer is a miracle I can only imagine what you went through. It is time someone invented portable air conditioners. It was a great read! Really entertaining!

Daphne said...

Mary, this is a wonderful, well-written story. I really enjoy your writing and you made me laugh. I could picture the whole scenario unfolding, especially since my parents are academics. Thank you for sharing this.

Mary Witzl said...

Aledys -- Thank you for commenting too!

I come from a very hot place myself, though at least I never had to wear black polyester there. And running in any kind of clothes is awful when it's hot, but that gown was the stuff they probably give people to wear in hell.

Bish -- I used to hate all polyester, unequivocally. I went for natural fabrics like cotton, linen and wool. Then I had children. Now, half my wardrobe seems to be polyester. True, it feels icky and does not breathe, but you don't have to iron it! Yes, polyester is my friend. Unless it's that awful black gown...

Falak -- The UAE must be hellish in the summer! It's pretty much that hot here too, though at least we do have the sea not too far away. I don't even want to LOOK at polyester for the next two months.

Daphne -- Thank you for your kind words.

Did your parents have to do this sort of thing too? It just seems so pointless and ridiculous, but the higher ups think it's dignified and impressive.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My wife's father was a professor at Oregon State. Faculty was required to attend graduation so every year he rented his cap and gown for graduation ceremony. Finally he relented and decided he should purchase a cap and gown; he probably had paid for three of them by then after renting every year. The first year after he purchased his, the university dropped the requirement that faculty attend graduation.

Kim Ayres said...

So is the hassle with the gowns the reason why you're going to make sure you're not there next year :)

Anne Spollen said...

Great story. I'm tellin ya, you should publish some of this stuff.

Jasmine said...

As I was reading I was thinking you were going to be late and have to explain yourself and so on. How terribly hilarious. :) I'm a first time visitor.

adrienne said...

Ha! When you're that resourceful, it's okay to be forgetful.

Charlie said...

Maybe you can use them next year at Cambridge or Oxford.

日月神教-任我行 said...