Loco Parentis: U R What U Wear

Clothes make the man — but not the teenager anymore, apparently.

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?