Poetry Friday: SHAME IS THE DRESS I WEAR-Maria Mazziotti Gillan

The Poetry Friday Roundup is over at Buffy Silverman’s blog: Buffy’s Blog

We are working on memoirs in writing workshop these days, and so there has been a great deal of delving into our stories and reflecting upon the impact of this or that experience in our lives.  As always, I am so moved by the honesty of my kids, their ability to think deeply, and their willingness to share.

Many of my kids had stories about coaches, and other adults who spoke harshly and criticized in soul shriveling ways.  Words matter, and children remember our words long after we’ve forgotten what was said…and how.

We will unpack this poem in class next week…I know my kiddos  will have a lot to say about this one:vintage photo


On the first day of school, my mother slips a dark blue
dress over my head, ties the starched sash. Zia Louisa and
Zio Guillermo have come down the back steps to our
apartment to see me setting off. They don’t have children

of their own and Zio Guillermo is my godfather, so they are
a big part of our lives. My mother has starched this cotton
dress handed down from Zia Christiana’s late in life
daughter, Zia Christiana who has enough money to buy

lots of pretty dresses for her red-headed daughter and also
throw chickens into the garbage that year when my father
was sick and couldn’t work so we lived on farina and
spaghetti. When my mother was dying, she talked about

seeing those discarded chickens and about being too
ashamed to ask for them. Anyway, I’m standing on that
wooden kitchen chair, my mother tugging at the dress,
my hair formed into sausage curls that my mother curled

by wrapping my thick dark hair in white rags, my eyes
enormous in my long, thin face. Zia Louisa stands back,
shakes her head and says, Why didn’t you get her a better
color? This dress that both my mother and I were proud of

until my aunt’s comment pointed out what should have
been obvious, that this dark blue color, perfect for a redhead
made my olive skin look jaundiced. I could almost
feel the starched skirt deflate. Sometimes I think that little

girl in her navy dress has followed me my whole life
through. There she is when I am at a party and I find a
chair to sit in and never move or when I am afraid to look
in a mirror to see what the years have done to me or when

I go to an Ivy League college to read and I meet the President
and his wife, so slim and Episcopalian, so upper class,
the whole place is jammed with faculty dressed in tweed
skirts and broadcloth white shirts and leather pumps

and shame is the dress I wear that day, shame and that little
girl, that shadow, is there her head hanging down as it did
then, her hands shaking.

Maria Mazziotti Gillan



11 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: SHAME IS THE DRESS I WEAR-Maria Mazziotti Gillan

  1. OMG, what a sad poem. Very well written, it put me in the room with the child and her relatives, and, at the Ivy League reading. By the way, Tara, I love the banner photo at the top of your page–stunning.

  2. It’s such a poem that everyone can relate to. That lovely moment where she gets to feel pretty and fancy and loved wrecked forever by one comment. I live that. Those kinds of words stay in your head forever. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Yes, I imagine your students will have much to say about this. I still remember a few words from long ago that ripped into me, and wish everyone would remember how words sting and linger, maybe forever. The poem might be a good one to share when teaching new teachers. Thanks very much, Tara.

  4. This poem left me with chills. So sad. I would love to be a fly on the wall in your classroom, Tara. I had my first poetry workshop last week with 7th and 8th graders and had forgotten how difficult it is for them to share at that time in their lives.

  5. This hits home. I grew up with a lot of words in my head. I carried them throughout my adult life, lived my life trying to prove those words weren’t true, only to realize in that manner I could never be free. Thanks for sharing this Tara. 🙂

  6. I’m sure this poem will hit a nasty sore that every child can relate to. Poetry can do that like no other genre. There it is for all the world to see…my shame. Whew!

  7. Oh. This makes me think of the stories my mother tells of her childhood. So sad when every remembrance is draped with the shame caused by someone who is supposed to love you…

  8. Yes, this is so powerful – and there’s much power in your teaching, Tara. I’m thankful your students find affirmation in your classroom. Those disparaging comments do follow us into the rest of our lives, don’t they?

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