The hidden reason for my flashy attire


It ain’t easy being a liberal arts teacher at a design school. What you try to convey is an introduction to cultural concerns, or perhaps an invitation to use critical and appreciative words to enhance studio productions: something like that.

My art form is what I wear to class, especially the first day, when I ramble on about my hopes for the course ... on birds-in-books, or poetry-in-scripture, or what to look for in “classic” Hollywood movies, or how to approach documentaries.

So, my wardrobe is my genre. In particular, my scarf is my palette. But I can’t do it alone – my wife knits colorful textures, elegant echarpes, fancy foulards, and just generally out-of-this-world scarves. She even teaches me how to put them on, around the neck and shoulders.  The choice of color is up to me, and I know what goes with what. 

Used to be, it was my bright shoes, sneakers actually, that caught the attention of our disciples at our somewhat unusual college of creativity.  But that fad faded, and then it was my caps that earned me renown. 

Socks too came and went as my tastes and eccentricities caught on with the campus crowd.  Now it’s mostly the color, fabric and pattern of my neckwear, meaning the scarf I wear through the winter for warmth, and, if it is silk, through the autumn and spring semesters.  In the summer, my T-shirts, with their various mottos and messages, replace the woven. 

Now we come – are you still with me? – to the other item critical to my appearance in educational edifices: the lapel pin.  A monarch butterfly, perhaps.  Or, most often, a bird.  Perhaps the quetzal, which is the state bird of Guatemala.  It is what they call their dollar bill and  is the logo on their national flag.  It is also a reminder of an ancient religion that teaches that this most unusual and magical creature is the creator itself (I love that concept)!  This superb trogon species has a tiny beak, iridescent multi-hued plumage, and an incredibly long curved “tail,” which is truly not a train but a special sort of cape that grows out of back feathers.  The quetzal builds its secret lair of a nest in the hollow of a tree – perhaps paying “rent” by dining on the pests that plague it?   

Many Guatemalans are arriving, legally or not, through the border checkpoints or over or under the walls.  One recent immigrant, “Miguel,” found work in Florida, and I met him while visiting there.  When I told him about my interest in his homeland, he brought me a heated robe as I emerged from the pool, and seemed, to me, to be the gracious soul of his troubled homeland.

My other pretty pin, currently my favorite, is from St. Eustatius, the littlest of the Caribbean islands, which calls itself  “Golden Rock” and whose inhabitants speak a language that mixes the leftover languages of all the European nations that colonized the stony outpost.  Among those tongues is Yiddish! It seems that Ashkenazim in 1776 used their commercial contacts to acquire weapons of liberation here, which they supplied to Gen. George Washington to finish the job of wresting freedom from the British Empire.   

Statia, the nickname of St. Eustatius, was the very first country to salute, to welcome, to celebrate the Stars and Stripes! 

What was the motive, and the achievement, of this wee wilderness that has little tourist trade or claim to bright fame?  According to a scholar with Sephardic roots in the region, one Harry Ezratty, it was an essential aspect of the Jewish quest for liberty of conscience, the right to pray, to live, die and be buried, to study one’s special scriptures, that  connects my column here to our Touro, which mixed Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Ladino and Yiddish. We are the heirs to St. Eustatius’ achievements. 

The island was very harshly punished for helping the colonials. In a rage, English Adm. George Brydges Rodney destroyed the synagogue, robbed the merchants and exiled the citizens, a tragedy from which there was never an end.  Which is what made me purchase a shot glass from the online gift shop of St. Eustatius, and a pin for my vest for my introduction to a class I call The Jewish Narrative.

I also teach an ornithology class, for which I put on my pin from Guatemala. 

My voyages are curtailed a bit now by my schedule at school.  I travel by means of tiny symbols I can affix to my jackets and shirts from my closet atelier.  They are not major statements, but rather quiet little hints on the outside that suggest to imaginative and inventive students what is going on inside.   

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.