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Published on Friday, September 22, 2000 in the Raleigh News & Observer
Schools' Codes Of Conformity
by Susanna Rodell
When Besh was 13, she went to her first school dance. Many of her friends were haunting the boutiques, looking for the most gorgeous creation they could find. We were broke. There was no way she could compete with their finery.

So one afternoon we took off and wandered through the thrift shops and funky antique clothing stores. In one we found a vintage apricot-colored silk-and-lace skirt, layer upon frothy layer of soft flounces. In another we discovered an old black camisole top that fit her young form perfectly. She was amazed when she looked in the mirror, seeing something quite different from the jeans-clad kid who usually stared back at her, defiant and a little unsure. Here was somebody quite lovely, someone new.

She went to the dance and knocked her friends out. She danced all night and ripped the pretty skirt but she came home happy.

I think of Besh all those years ago whenever I hear folks start in about school uniforms. Kids use clothes to compete, we're told. The emphasis on appearance puts less well-off kids at an unfair advantage.

My kids have never been among the well-off, the J. Crew-and-Abercrombie set, but they get really mad when they hear the arguments for uniforms. I agree with them. Their experience, along with my own, is my guide.

In the first place, I've been there. I went to a school with uniforms for my last two years of high school, and of all the schools I attended (and there were many) it was absolutely the worst for snobbery and emphasis on appearance.

Sure, we had to wear identical yucky green jumpers with identical white blouses and ugly brown oxfords. That made it even harder to compete.

The rich kids wore expensive gold bracelets that showed up even more amid the clonelike crowd. We had to buy cardigans that matched our jumpers. The rich girls' were Shetland wool; mine was acrylic. I might as well have been Minnie Pearl. The rich kids indulged in costly perfume. Our sense of smell was no doubt much more keenly developed than that of kids in other schools. A sniff of Intimate intermingled with the general aura of White Shoulders and Canoe would have brought immediate ridicule.

The point is, you can't stomp out differences. Make them all dress alike and they'll pay even more attention to other things: cars, jewelry, hairdos, backpacks, nails, even underwear.

But even if the social engineering aspect of uniforms worked, I'd still argue that they're a bad idea. Kids have few enough areas of their lives that they get to control. Adolescence is all about experimentation and fashioning an identity. Sure, you can say, their identity should consist of more than appearance. You're right.

But you know, clothes are fun. With clothes, kids get to live a little, assert a bit of craziness, color, even humor. My kids strongly suspect (and I'm beginning to agree with them) that when grownups want to take this away from them, it's an attempt to stifle them, to stomp on their individuality.

Most of what I hear and see in the media about adolescents is negative; it's almost as though we've become scared of our kids, and totally distrustful. Sure, events like Columbine are real enough. But another reality is that juvenile crime is on the wane, as are teenage pregnancy and sexual activity.

My kids' friends are very cool people. They are funny, compassionate and thoughtful, and I'm often blown away by their observations. Sure, they are also silly and impetuous and sometimes vengeful. But so are we.

When I hear talk of uniforms and curfews and the like, I wonder whether we aren't losing sight of what adolescence is supposed to be about: experimentation, risk, asserting differences with parents, challenge, creating a little bit of discomfort for adults.

In fact, I love watching how my kids dress. Sometimes I even get ideas from them. True, every now and then I have to play censor, but that's the role of a parent.

If my kids had been forced to wear uniforms, they might not have found a creative outlet in the thrift shops and discount stores, a way to say to their friends, hey, I am very cool just the way I am. You may be able to buy anything you like, but you can never replicate this vintage suit I found at the Salvation Army. It's been an exercise in creative problem solving, on thinking outside the box, on confronting social stress and coming out with their self-respect intact. Not to mention having a whole lot of fun.

Copyright 2000, The News & Observer


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