Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Mail call...and I call it stupid

Barbara Spencer is a teacher at my former high school. She is known in the local media for writing long letters that are typically insightful and provocative. This time, however, she just made me angry--so angry that this usually levelheaded blogger (cough) almost ripped up the paper right then and there. I'm referring to today's edition of The Daily Advertiser, a newspaper known for its insightful letters (though, for some reason, this letter is not posted; would have saved me a whole lot of time, natch).

First, a bit of background: beginning my senior year of high school in 1997, my public-school system went on a right-wing jag, fueled by a Nazi-prick superintendent fresh from Texas. Even after Herr Superintendent was run out of town on a rail three years later, the jag continued to propel itself like a Karl Rove virus. The pinnacle of this fuck-up-itude was the institution of uniforms in all Lafayette Parish public schools just after I left. Luck was on my side, at least that one time.

When the decision was announced (with next to no input from students or anyone else who didn't utterly favor the complete eradication of student rights), people around here acted like it was the Single Greatest Educational Advance in History. Even people who should have known better were singing the praises for the end of the completely non-existent problem of fashion consciousness that was disrupting education. Jeez, I could go on forever. But on with the letter:

It starts with a long anecdote about a little girl (the teacher's neighbor) who discovers the value and innate goodness of the police. Why were the police such benevolent and efficient crime fighters?

As I reflect on this incident, I conclude that my little friend adopted policemen as her friends due to the UNIFORMITY of their activities. They did not physically look identical, but they were all working uniformly for the protection of the common citizen. My little friend probably could not identify these officers if she saw them again, but she would recognize the UNIFORMS and feel happiness.

This is where it gets real good.

You see, the word UNIFORM symbolizes compromise, togetherness, a common purpose--all made obvious by a specific method of dress.

I have to go with George Carlin on this one: "School uniforms! Bad Idea. BAD IDEA. It isn't enough that we're teaching these kids to THINK alike, now they have to LOOK alike too?!! But this isn't a new idea. I remember seeing it in filmstrips from the 1930s, only I couldn't understand what they were saying because the narration was in GERMAN!"

It does not mean loss of identity, but it does symbolize differences and similarities forming a common bond for the purpose of achieving a desired outcome! Students, I encourage you to wear those uniforms with pride. Wear your uniform as a sign that you are only a temporary part of the caboose and that you are actively preparing to claim your place as a uniformed ADULT of merit! Walk tall and think big!!
Have a fantastic year, everyone!

B. Spencer

Lafayette High School


ALL RIGHT! That wasn't AT ALL depressing! Kids, heed this lesson: don't bother getting your expressive kicks out now, because you won't get to later anyway. After all, school should be a training ground for Future Corporate Cogs of America! It's no place for expression.

But in a way it's worked. As far as I know, 1999 was the first year that anyone ever graduated from the Lafayette Parish school system. Uniforms sure would have helped me; I've been in the public-school system for 20 years, from preschool to graduate school, and I have just been wayward without a restrictive dress code!

The day I see teachers and school-board members practice what they preach, and wear the same uniforms as the students, is the day that I begin to rebuild my respect for those who wish to exert unfair power over children.


Liz "the Biz" said...

Uniforms aren't that bad. I had to wear uniforms when I went to school and just look how I turned out. Wait, nevermind.

Ian McGibboney said...

The reasons they gave to instill uniforms here were all such bullshit...you could tell the school board just wanted to do it so they coud look busy. That's why it bothered me. That and the fact that I don't think kids should be subjected to this kind of thing.

Michael said...

In fairness, there is something of a case to be made for school uniforms. They're traditional, for one thing. (Of course, that goes back to the fact that long ago and far away, going to school more or less meant you were in training for the clergy, and they had a distinctive style of dress for that reason.)

School uniforms do help reduce the importance placed by some shallow-minded folk on their appearance--not so much the "dress for success" crowd as the "dress to impress" and the "dress to flaunt my obvious superiority to all the rest of the losers around here" crowd. Not having to worry about looking like a frump next to all the beautiful and popular people can be a relief for a student.

But on the other hand, as anyone who can still remember what high school was like can easily attest, not measuring up in the clothing department is just one minuscule component of teen-age anxiety. Take it out of the mix and you'll still have 9999 others to keep their little minds off algebra. And until some bright school superintendent figures out a way to do away with puberty and the size/performance anxiety that goes along with it, well, let's just say that teen-agers are likely to continue to be a little bit on the neurotic side.

Ian McGibboney said...

I never was one for tradition, especially one that derives its roots from religious custom (though I admit I didn't know that before). First off, uniforms had never been worn here in public schools here prior to about 1998-99. Second, one could argue that slavery and sexism are also traditions. Didn't help much, did it?

I find the fashion excuse flimsy. If that were an issue, then we would quit selling children's clothes altogether because fashion consciousness extends far beyond school. It's not going away. Besides, students are still allowed (for the most part) to wear shoes, overcoats and jewelry of their choice. Are there not major differences in those as well? In 20 years of public school (often in the ghetto), including about six or seven years of being bullied, I never saw clothing to be a prevalent cause. That's not to say it doesn't happen, but I doubt it's on the scale to justify a clothing ban. Even if it did, it's treating the symptom, not the cause. How about a little more education for kids on the issue? Or better yet, how about a little less marketing?

My experience with some of my private-school friends is that so many of them were repressed for so long that they became the biggest rebels coming out, in the worst sort of reactionary way. Not just fashion-wise, but socially as well. Repression breeds resentment.

Among those I know personally that like uniforms are those who never knew any other way. That's true of most things, I think.

Flamingo Jones said...

Teaching last year, in a parish just a tad further down 90, was my first experience with school uniforms. I found the whole thing extrememly distasteful. Administrators claimed that a uniform code promoted equality and good behavior. They seemed terrified of what would happen if kids got to wear any sort of regular clothing. Every time we had a "dress-down" day (a day when kids could wear jeans and non-polo shirts, provided that they PAY $.50-$1) we were constantly warned that the children would behave like animals. That wasn't the case. They DID behave like living, breathing, unique human beings though. Maybe THAT's what really scares people.

Speaking to the argument that uniforms keep children from teasing each other about their clothing, many schools in our district had a policy where if (god forbid) a student forgot to wear a belt, they had to wear a bright yellow rope for the day instead. The reasoning? They'll be so embarrassed that they won't forget their belt again. Hmmm. Yes. Very humane indeed.

Michael said...

We're on the same side, Ian, really. I'm just playing devil's advocate. As I said in my earlier comment, teen-agers (well, really, people generally--no matter what their age) don't need a real reason to make fun of or look down on someone. If they can't find one, they'll make one up.

Parents might like uniforms because they wind up being cheaper: just buy five sets of whatever is on the "approved" list, and the kid is all set for a full year of school--instead of having to keep up with all the latest (transitory) teen-age fashion trends. But that isn't really something for the schools to be worrying about. The parents could stand a lesson in saying "no" to their kids once in a while, and the kids wouldn't be hurt in the least by having to wait or save up for something they wanted, instead of having it handed to them the minute they asked for it.

Ian McGibboney said...

Flamingo, are you referring to Iberia Parish? I know what you mean about the free day. In fact, I've always suspected that was one reason that uniforms became the rule in Lafayette Parish as well. Money for nothing? A day's freedom in exchange for extortion? Is that a lesson for our children? Maybe I shouldn't ask that in an age where we're being told we have to always resort to force in every conflict.

As for the uniforms being inexpensive, I think a couple of things slip by here. It is indeed true that the purchase of uniforms might ease clothing costs--for parents with kids whose wardrobe choices are purchased specifically for the school year and happen to be hugely expensive. Think Elle Woods of Legally Blonde. As far as my and most of my friends' experiences went, we wore what we had and it lasted. My clothes were less expensive than your average uniform, and it was never a big deal if we forgot to wash something, because there was always something else to wear. I think about the poor single mom who has ample amount of clothing for her children but now must go out and buy an expensive uniform at an upscale clothing store (at least it's usually how it works here).

Flamingo Jones said...

I was down in St. Mary, but I believe both SMP and Iberia parish's policies mirror each other and came about around the same time.

I wish I could still muster up a shocked reaction (followed by rage and indignation) at the idea of freedom in exchange for extortion, but it certainly does seem to be par for the course nowadays, doesn't it?