When I was fifteen, my mom bought me two suits—two jackets and three skirts, one plain set and one with pinstripes. I had signed up for speech and debate class to meet a graduation requirement after hearing other kids rave about how cool the coach—Ms. (never Mrs.) Denney Bull—was. After a couple months of training, my first tournament rolled around, and it was finally time to put on one of those suits.
I was an outgoing kid who talked too much but turned into a bit of a wallflower when I lacked confidence, prone to only doing things I was good at immediately. Ms. Denney Bull helped me look for opportunities to challenge myself. I signed up for congressional debate, and ended up qualifying for the National Speech and Debate Association’s national tournament. The next year, when I was required to take on another event, my coach recommended extemporaneous speaking: Draw three questions, choose one, and prep a seven-minute speech in thirty minutes. I was terrified, but she was convinced I could handle it, and she was right—Ms. Denney Bull was always right.
Every weekend from November until March, the suits my mother bought me were my uniform at events. My coach’s criticism never made me feel belittled, like a kid playing dress-up, even though I was arguing about current events and foreign policy and some people like to dismiss teenagers in this arena. I got used to walking in heels. I learned how to tie a tie, and how to sleep on a bus without wrinkling my jacket too much. I learned how to talk in a roomful of people and project confidence, even when I felt uncertain. I learned the building blocks of oral arguments, celebrated classmates’ victories, and saw the humanity of my peers affirmed. The awards I brought back proved to me that I was good; that the money my family had spent and all those weekends away were worth it. I felt competent, in control: a gladiator in a suit.
Over the next three years, I went to four national tournaments altogether, advancing to the semifinals twice. I ended up buying two more suits that were significantly more me : a bubble gum-pink skirt suit and a grey herringbone pantsuit. I assumed I would wear suits like these for the rest of my life. I expected to go to law school after graduation (it’s what I thought smart kids did), or go on to do something equally impressive. I thought I’d end up in a job where I would wear a suit every day, and for years I hung onto the clothes because I figured they would one day be necessary.
I cannot even remember the last time I wore one of my suits. Turns out writers rarely need them. My newspaper jobs called for “business casual,” which for me meant slacks paired with an awful polyester blouse that made me sweat, or a cute dress from the Misses section. When I worked for startups and digital media shops, the dress code was even more casual.
Now I work for myself, and my standard uniform is jeans and a T-shirt. When you’re the only person you’ll see for eight to ten hours a day, it’s easy to throw workplace wardrobe norms out the window. Last Friday, I wore a T-shirt from a 2007 Fall Out Boy concert; all winter, I rotated through a closet of leggings and sweatshirts from various sports teams.
The past year of working for myself led to me to consider what makes me excited to put on my body. When you make the rules, there’s no reason to hold onto old rules. I had resigned myself to office casual clothing that was fine, something to be endured; it turned out that kind of clothing often made me fidgety and uncomfortable, hardly good for my work day. So I began to wonder—independent of what I once thought writers “should” wear, what type of clothing would I be truly comfortable in? That’s what led me to wearing yoga pants with a full face of makeup most days.
Suits, to me, have always signified certain vocations, professions with “stability” and corporate values and a degree of security. Intellectually, of course, I know that corporate life doesn’t make you immune from downsizing and layoffs. But every day it feels like I’m constantly swimming upstream, pursuing creative fields I love. I am always stressed about money—maybe even more so when all my bills are paid, because I remember how desperate I felt when they weren’t, and I know I could end up right back there.
Sometimes I still think about my suits and the life I could have had, one that would mean I wore them every day. I love writing and reporting, and if I knew what else I wanted to do, I might do it. Instead, I’m left feeling fulfilled in my soul, with my stomach eternally in knots. Maybe a less creative life would be worth the tradeoff for a better retirement account and a more traditional work schedule. If adulthood is about the trade-offs you’re willing to live with, I’m still not sure stability is something I’m willing to give up.
For years, all my suits hung, dry-cleaned and pressed, in garment bags in one of my parents’ closets. I knew they’d outgrown their purpose—or I had outgrown them—but I wasn’t quite ready to admit it. I still loved thinking about and being reminded of those years, of my first mentor: Sabrina Denney Bull taught me how to believe in myself, how to stand up straight even when I was nervous. She took no shit, infused us with confidence, and was one of the first people to introduce me to feminism. Being a speech kid in a suit made me a more confident person, and being in Sabrina Denney Bull’s classroom made me a more empathic one. When I came to her with a bunch of college acceptance letters and no idea what to do, she listened to my rambling and then pointed out, “You’re smart; you’ll get a good education anywhere.” (She was right again.) Her entire job was aimed at helping hundreds of students find our voices, and therefore find ourselves.
The suits were tied to my gratitude and affection for my coach and what I learned from her, but I no longer needed them. When I was back home in Dallas last fall, I decided it was finally time to get rid of them. They no longer fit me well; even if I wanted a life with more stability and a higher dress code, I would have to purchase new ones.
For years, I’d wondered how I could properly repay Ms. Denney Bull for what she and her program gave me. Can you ever truly repay the first adult who made you believe in yourself? Who held you to the highest standard because you because you needed it, not because it was an opportunity to assert themselves or be cruel? Standing up for yourself is already so hard as an adult, and I learned how to do it while still a child.
I suddenly remembered hearing announcements about high school alumni who had donated old suits to the school. If anyone couldn’t afford the required tournament dress, the suits were there to take. Giving my suits to the students on my old team felt like the right thing to do.
I still sobbed as I packed up them up—giving them away felt like giving away a part of myself. The single-breasted skirt suits were my armor as a teenager craving respect, looking ahead while I tried on a new life, ten minutes at a time. The hours I spent speaking in those suits gave me the confidence I needed to become a writer. They gave me this life—this incredibly stressful but fulfilling creative life.
In the package of suits, I included a note to my former coach: “This is the least I can do to start repaying you.” A few days after they’d arrived, Ms. Denney Bull told me a student had already taken one of them. I didn’t need them anymore, but that student did. I wondered if the stitches holding together sleeves and darts could somehow store the confidence I’d gained, the good fortune I’d known at tournaments, and hoped the student who took my suit would qualify for Nationals.