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March 10, 2011

Susan Juby: Directed Studies, Part II

Posted by Stephen

Susan Juby is the author of Home to Woefield, a charming novel of a young woman determined to remake her family's farm. In this essay, Susan shares her memories of the inspiring, yet intimidating English teacher whose impact set her on a path to writing.Click here for Part I.  Click here to enter to win a copy of Home to Woefield. Visit for more.

woefield.JPGWhat was I interested in? The truth is, that the worse I’d done in school, the less I was interested in. The chess people, the ones who discussed the latest articles from Harper’s and the Economist in hushed tones in the hallways at lunchtime, now they had interests. Even I knew that “partying” (used as a verb), was not a legitimate interest, but more of an avocation.

Mr. Law sent me away to think of something and that afternoon I did.
I was interested in clothes. Fashion seemed like something I could love. A passion for clothes didn’t have the same “getting above myself” quality that an interest in, say, micro-economics or golf course design would have. I could bring up the topic of fashion out in the smoking area without hitting a wall of blank, fish-eyed stares that told me I’d crossed a line. In fact we often had lively discussions out there about topics such as how acid wash denim was really made and shared the latest news about innovations in curling irons.
So the next time I saw Mr. Law I announced I wanted to study fashion. 
He nodded gravely.
Then I surprised both of us. “Historical fashion. 19th century costume design.” I blurted, thinking back to a two-minute segment I’d seen on an educational television program recently. 
His eyebrows rose a bit and he nodded.
“Okay. Write it up.”
I couldn’t believe I’d just told him I wanted to spend a year researching 19th century fashion. It was as though merely being asked what I was interested in made me want to come up with something good.
I spent the evening writing up a proposed course of study. It was the first night I’d spent doing homework in my entire high school career. Seriously. And it wasn’t that bad. It was even sort of fun. I proposed spending one term researching 19th century fashions and one term actually making a reproduction of a ballgown from that era. The fact that I a) had no research skills whatsoever, and b) couldn’t sew, didn’t stop me. I was going to be in DS! Us DS types were not afraid to take on a challenge!
Our first DS meeting consisted of me on one side of the room, reeking of cigarette smoke and perm solution, and all the smartest kids in Grade 11 on the other. My presence seemed to rattle them. What kind of meritocracy was this that allowed a smoking area “C” student into the ranks? The DS kids weren’t mean to my face. Years of bullying had taught them better. Instead, they adopted a cautious, slightly soothing manner with me, as though I was an unpredictable and none-too-bright animal like a young badger or a yearling moose that someone had very inappropriately brought to a party.
Amongst themselves they had considerable camaraderie. Mark, a dark haired, pear-shaped boy teased Samantha, the serious, red-haired editor of the student paper about her plan to study bias in the media coverage of the federal election. He teased her about her fondness for “soft science”. I was appalled. These people made jokes about soft science? What in the hell was soft science? And what would they think when I announced I wanted to study fashion design for a year?
Then Mark, emboldened by his leaden flirtation, spoke to me. “I hope you’re pursuing something a bit more quantifiable,” he said. The people around him shrunk visibly, probably concerned that I didn’t know what quantifiable meant and, maddened by frustration, would physically attack him. They weren’t far off.
But before I could say anything, Mr. Law took control. He introduced each of us and described our projects. Art would be studying neuroscience; Tina: Japanese calligraphy. Samantha: Media Studies. Matt: astrophysics. Christopher was going to put Wordsworth in Perspective. Bing: Economic Recovery in Postwar Germany and Susan: 19th Century Costume Design and its Social Relevance.
As he mentioned my topic, I looked from face to face. No one appeared all that impressed by my intellectual ambition, but no one laughed out loud either.
Over the course of that year I discovered the rich history of fashion and what it reveals about women’s roles in society. I struggled to learn basic sewing skills and spent every extra penny (other than those needed to keep my hair in a state of advanced permed-ness) to buy the equipment and materials to make my 19th century reproduction ballgown. I enlisted the help of a whole host of women, from the local seamstress to the public librarian, all of whom became quite fascinated in the subject.
I also got to know my fellow DS students and soon began to appreciate the fact that I didn’t have to dumb down my vocabulary around them or pretend to be stupid to amuse them. That was something I’d learned to do early to avoid the dreaded accusation: “why do you always got to use such big words?”
The Directed Studies kids were so far outside my social circle they might have been my parents’ friends. But I grew to like several of them and they started to like me. I told them stories from the front lines of the Party Nation, which they listened to with the rapt attention of people listening to an astronaut bringing back tales from the moon.
During the presentation at the end of the year, Christopher put Wordsworth into perspective (turns out he was very important). Tina gave a demonstration of Japanese brushwork. Matt talked about what he’d learned about astrophysics. And I came out on stage in a 19th century ballgown complete with velvet bodice and elaborate crinolined skirt. I talked about how upper class women were put on pedestals as untouchable symbols of femininity and how their fashions made them literally remote. I discussed how in the Extravagant Period, fashion influenced architecture as doors were made wider to accommodate the giant skirts, how women at the time wore dead birds and insects in their hair as decorations. I talked about how women drank vinegar to increase their pallor and did all kinds of other unhealthy things that made them fit a senseless standard of beauty.
When the talk was over I had an “A” in Directed Studies (the only one in my high school career) and had decided to go to fashion design school after I graduated.
If this was a story and not an essay, I would report that I went on to become the preeminent costume designer of the 20th century. But the sad reality is that I ended up dropping out of fashion design college after six months because I blew my student loan on parties and a green paisley outfit complete with thigh high green socks and green velvet slippers. I spent a year or so working at a variety of low-paying jobs. But eventually I took an English course at university, and when that went well and I entered university full time to do a degree in English Literature, I wrote to Mr. Law to thank him.
Today when I think about who I am and what I do (write novels in which fashion tends to figure prominently) I think of Mr. Law taking the chance and inviting me to join the intellectual haves and have mores in the DS program. Sure, I was a lackluster student before DS and, let’s face it, after. But the fact that one teacher thought I might have some interests worth exploring made me consider the possibility. The discovery that I was interested in a great many things made a profound difference in my life.
I keep that reproduction ballgown in an old trunk in my garage. And sometimes I take it out and contemplate it. Because in that one badly sewn dress, lies the beginnings of a new life, one with interests and passions that run as far and as wide as I can see. Directed studies indeed.
*Disclaimer. Parts of this recollection may be misremembered. I had a misspent youth. But if a few of the details are off, the gist is correct. Thanks, Mr. Law.