A FEW YEARS ago, the school board in the town where we live began making noises about school uniforms. I didn’t pay much attention, because the school board is always making noises about something. The school uniform issue, though, struck a nerve with my husband, Doug. He hated the idea, I think because he went to a military school where you had to be all spit-and-polish from head to toe. The uniform policy the school board was proposing was nowhere near that draconian; kids would have to wear khaki dress pants or skirts, with white, navy or powder blue collared shirts. But for Doug, the details mattered less than the principle. He took to speaking out at school board meetings and writing letters to the local newspaper, assailing groupdress as leading inevitably to groupthink, and decrying the loss of the rights of the individual in American society.
But the school board was adamant: Uniforms would end a multitude of problems, from unruly teens concealing weaponry in their overgrown hoodies, to the manifestations of economic disparity that had some kids decked out in Juicys and others in Walmart clearance, to the lewd and shocking practice of boys wearing pants that rode below their butts and girls with acres of midriff on display.
That’s when I came around to Doug’s viewpoint. The board’s faith in the magical efficacy of khaki and collars struck me as dangerously naïve. There are serious woes in our community — poverty, drugs, joblessness, teen pregnancy, racial tensions — and they didn’t seem the sorts of things a school uniform Band-Aid could resolve.
Alas, we were a distinct minority. The old folks in town swooned at the notion of uniforms, since it meant a return to the clothes they themselves wore to school, back before Jane Fonda brought God’s wrath down on the U.S. of A. Our fellow parents were generally in favor. Beleaguered teachers and administrators were willing to try anything. And so the uniform policy was enacted — for elementary and middle schools. Phew! The process had been so protracted that our daughter Marcy was already in college; Jake was a high-school junior. And while there was something undeniably adorable about the younger kids toddling home in their matching outfits, I refused to believe the school board would be lunatic enough to try to force a high school full of vampire worshipers and hip-hoppers and Lady Gaga wannabes to toe the line.
Last September, it decided to, just in time for Jake’s senior year.
I’m not opposed to all uniforms. I love the way Jake looks when he suits up for football games. I’m proud when he puts on his Class A for Boy Scouts. Sure, Scouting’s kind of corny, and I hate the no-gays policy, but I’m jelly at every Eagle ceremony we’ve been to, watching boys we’ve known since kindergarten stand up as men.
But school uniforms troubled me. The fact is, I like uniforms that make my kids stand out from the crowd, that mark them as special and worthy of attention. The school uniforms were meant to have exactly the opposite effect. The board was aiming for homogeneousness; I long for singularity when it comes to my offspring. If they dress like everyone else, the world might make the mistake of thinking they are like everyone else, instead of the highly unusual, extraordinarily brilliant, uniquely talented individuals I know them to be.
Still, the school board had spoken: Come September 2009, it would be uniforms for all, from pre-K through grade 12. Shortly after the announcement was made last summer, Jake approached me in the kitchen and asked, “Can you sew me a kilt?”
“Yeah. A khaki kilt. To wear the first day of school.”
I laughed out loud at the notion. Trust Jake to come up with the perfect in-your-face rebuke to the new policy mandating lemming-like conformity. That he’s a six-foot-three, 350-pound offensive lineman just made the prospect more delectable. So I sewed him a kilt, a project that required a surprising number of fittings and revisions (male bodies really are different), so that the work-in-progress always seemed to be lying on the kitchen table, where Marcy’s and Jake’s friends would see it when they came by. “What’s that?” they’d ask, and Jake would say, “A kilt. I’m wearing it the first day of school.” The friends’ eyes would go wide, and they’d look at him the way buddies of Scottish national hero William Wallace (the guy Mel Gibson played in Braveheart) must have when he suggested standing up to the English — as if he was rare and loony but unspeakably brave. Which was exactly what I thought of Jake.
Right up until a week before school started, when he confided that he wouldn’t be wearing his kilt to school after all, because his football coach, he was pretty sure, wouldn’t find it amusing, and would almost certainly bench him for the opening game.
IT’S AN UNCOMFORTABLE, if not unfamiliar, sensation, to be disappointed in your child. It seems so unfair — after all, he’s just a kid, not William Wallace or Albert Einstein or Nelson Mandela or any of the other great men you wish he would turn out to be. I’m sure Einstein’s mom had moments when she wondered if he ever would amount to anything, and that Mandela left dirty dishes in the living room. Still, this letdown was squarely Jake’s fault: He’d raised my hopes up with his kilt scheme, only to dash them by caving in to conformity in the end.
What made the disappointment more bitter is that the new dress code has had, by all indications, exactly the effect the school board hoped for. The teachers at Jake’s school say the kids are better behaved across the board now that they’re better dressed. And it appears to be true from my vantage point. In previous years, I’d have to run out to the alley behind our house every month or so to bust up a fistfight between kids walking home from school. Since they donned their khakis in September, I haven’t once had to step in as peacekeeper.
When I visited the high school for Career Week, I asked the kids in the classes I spoke to: What about the uniforms? They’re dumb, they all agreed. “We have ways of personalizing, though,” one pretty young thing told me, fingering a row of decorative pins along her collar. Nobody could recall anyone going to the mat in defiance of the dress code. Instead, the students seemed to approach it as just another in a long line of inexplicable mysteries their elders have foisted on them during their school years, from the PSSA tests to bell choir concerts to that thing where you carry an egg around for a day and pretend it’s a baby even though it’s not.
Which got me thinking, as I gazed at their shorn heads, their ponytails (both male and female), their dreadlocks, their mohawks, their Afros, their cornrows, their French braids, their sloppy buns, their Goth hair dyed black and pink: Their fights are not my fights. When Doug and I were in high school, the battles were all about miniskirt span, bell-bottom width, the mere length of hair (much less its color or geometric flair). But why should Jake’s generation be -invested — so to speak — in outer garments when there are so many more interesting ways to drive your parents insane? Why argue about clothes when you can threaten Mom with piercings, subcutaneous jewelry, tattoos, those gruesome earring plugs?
Besides, the schoolkids in their uniforms have so many venues for expressing their individuality — with their iPhones and iPods, their Facebook pages, their Twitter accounts and Madden usernames and Gmail aliases. They never worry, as Doug and I did at their age, that outward conformity might erode them at their core. In fact, uniforms suit their notion of individuality: Sure, everybody has a Facebook page, just like everybody’s wearing khakis and a polo. But no one else’s is exactly like mine. No one’s ever could be.
STILL, THAT DIDN’T seem to wholly explain the urge for uniform compliance among the student body. For Christmas, I bought Jake a couple of new polos. He frowned when he opened the wrapping. “I don’t think these are powder blue,” he said dubiously.
“They’re close enough,” I told him.
“Mom,” he said, in that heavy, long-suffering-teenager way. “You would not believe the arguments that go on in my homeroom over what constitutes powder blue. It practically comes to blows.”
I mulled this over as I gathered up wrapping paper and ribbons. What would make students so relentlessly self-policing over gradations of color? Were they simply pursuing a scaled-down version of the arguments that used to rage over whose jeans were cooler? Or was something larger at stake?
I got a hint over Christmas break. The day after New Year’s, Marcy was leaving for a semester at a university in Mexico. It’s actually her second visit; she was there for a semester in 2008, too. Last time, she tossed some running shorts and t-shirts and flip-flops in her suitcase and that was that. This go-round, however, was different, because now she knew that Mexican women don’t wear running shorts and t-shirts and flip-flops; they wear sundresses and heels. And that’s what she had to go shopping for.
“There aren’t a lot of places selling sundresses this time of year,” I pointed out to her, which made her break into tears:
“I have to have sundresses, Mom! How else am I going to fit in?”
I didn’t, under the circumstances, point out that at five-10, she’s probably nine inches taller than the average Mexican female — not to mention her blue eyes and blond hair. What was the point? She was convinced heels and sundresses would do the trick.
That’s when it dawned on me: This is why school uniforms worked. Even if kids know in their hearts they don’t fit in, those khakis and collars provide the illusion they do — that they’re more like than unlike their peers. That’s something to cling to, when you’re 16 or 17 and convinced that nobody in the entire history of the universe has ever been so unloved and misunderstood as you.
But beyond that, technology has splintered us into smaller and smaller slivers of commonality. We don’t go to movie theaters anymore; we download Netflix. We don’t play softball together; we ride stationary bikes while listening to headphones. We don’t leave our houses to meet our neighbors. We don’t even leave to find soulmates; we do that via the computer, too. This is the downside to our celebration of individuality: We no longer remember how to get along. We’re stuck fumbling to find means of interacting with one another, setting up artificial constructs like “One Book, One Philadelphia,” and Classmates.com, and choice tables at restaurants that you eat at, not with loved ones, but with strangers. The more -LinkedIn we get, the more lonely we are. “I wish you and Dad had more friends,” Jake’s told me more than once. I used to read this as his way of saying he’d reap benefits if we were more social — he’d get invited to parties with us, or at least get to stay home alone while we went out. Lately I see it more as a lament, both for our solitude, and for what lies ahead for him. We’ve pushed the American Dream to its peculiar conclusion, moved away from crowded cities to the suburbs to live in self-sufficient castles, and even inside those to be apart, each of us sitting alone, staring at our own small computer screen.
Khakis and a polo, though — they proclaim, “I belong to something greater than myself.” In a single generation, we’ve gone from longing to stand apart to being desperate to connect.
“DEAR PARENT, GAURDIAN,” the letter from Jake’s school begins — not a good sign. I plunk the rest of the mail on the kitchen table and keep reading. “This letter is to inform you that your child has been out of compliance with the school district’s school uniform attire policy multiple times this year.” It goes on to list the repercussions of further transgressions: detention, in-school suspension, and, for a fifth offense, the dreaded out-of-school suspension, or OSS.
I’ll be damned, I think, with a flutter of pride. The kid has some William Wallace in him after all. He’s not content to be a forlorn victim of anomie; he’s taking a stand, sticking it to The Man!
And here he comes in the back door, hungry after basketball practice. “What’s for dinner?” he demands, sniffing the air. “Tacos? Is it tacos? Yes!”
“I got a letter from school,” I tell him, since he’s in a good mood. “It says you’ve violated the uniform policy. Multiple times.”
He sighs, his good humor escaping like air from a balloon. “Three times,” he says. “I wore sweatpants once. I wore a striped polo one day — a powder blue striped polo. And I wore my football t-shirt the day of a game.”
I want to high-five him for his defiance, but what kind of parent would that make me? Instead I ask: “Why?”
“Because I didn’t feel like going all the way back up to the third floor to get the right clothes.”
Ah. He’s a rebel of convenience. Still, he’s a rebel. I’m hanging onto that kilt. Maybe the last day of school.