So a student at Willard High in Willard, Missouri (current home of John Ashcroft), was recently disciplined for what school administrators deemed an ‘excessive’ haircut.
So what brand of hairdo did this filthy hippie sport? A Marine-style shave. I couldn’t make that up.
I’m not even sure what to say about this. It’s just so...absurd. But given the busybody ethic of many school boards, disciplining a student over a military haircut is only a logical, inevitable end.
It’s occasionally been said that I have a problem with authority. But I don’t. I respect any leadership that balances experience with intelligence, intuition and a respect for the governed. Unjustified power trips are what rub me the wrong way, especially in a situation (such as public schools) where a captive audience has no say in the proceedings. Combine that with the religious-conservative push to take over school boards and the resultant tendency to make mountains out of longstanding molehills, and school authorities can sometimes represent the absolute worst models of leadership. And this is often the first encounter our young, budding citizens have with public authority.
Before my senior year of high school, in 1997, a new superintendent took over in Lafayette Parish, Michael Zolkoski. He was repeatedly praised as a man who would “get things done.” For those of you not familiar with south Louisiana political culture or school boards pretty much anywhere, “get things done” can be defined as such:
Get things done (verb) — 1) The appearance of getting things done, irrespective of whether such is actually the case; 2) Concentrating on superfluous decisions in lieu of less-sexy yet lasting change; 3) A cue for students to bend over, because here it comes again; 4) (Archaic) The act of getting things done.
Zolkoski’s primary mission took the form of a more stringent dress code. I’d been in the Lafayette Parish school system since before I turned 4 years old, and in that time I saw lots of changes to the dress code that even as a child I thought were patently ridiculous. And that was before it went into hyperdrive.
Somebody please explain to me why it’s such a sin for students to wear shorts after fifth grade. Please? I’m almost 31 years old and I still don’t get it!
Anyway, the man we called Dr. Z (when we students weren’t calling him other, less historically flattering names) and the school board came up with some imaginative guidelines. It had long been the case already that middle and high school students couldn’t wear shorts, miniskirts or anything considered obscene. That last one didn’t have a strict definition, but I had a general idea after seeing my friend in 4th grade get pulled aside in the hallway by our teacher and principal for wearing a shirt that said, “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?”
Oh, and there were voluntary uniforms, which I thought to be an oxymoron before I knew that word.
Dr. Z upped the ante by curtailing the length of boys’ hair. I think it could just graze the ear, or something stupid like that. And, obviously, no facial hair of any kind. They also further limited what kind of clothes students could wear. The moves sparked a massive student protest in a Lafayette park. I couldn’t attend, because I and my self-shaven head were in St. Martinville for a preseason football scrimmage that my coach forgot to play me in.
My favorite part about the whole dress-code row were the justifications that the school board gave for the changes. Actual quotes elude me, but they generally bypassed the usual tripe about the need to maintain order and civility. Instead they were saying things like, if you want to make a statement, make it with your grades and that long hair and outlandish fashion were distracting.
Yeah, distracting. Because spending all of your time in class talking about how stupid rules are (with your teachers largely agreeing) isn’t distracting. Because worrying about getting busted for a stray lock of hair because you can’t afford a haircut isn’t distracting. Because that boy from Comeaux High who refused to cut his hair, making news and ultimately wearing a wig (and then getting beaten up) isn’t distracting. Yeah.
Some board member justified more conservative dress (which after my time led to mandatory uniforms) by saying that students should not judge one another by looks, but by what’s inside. Which sounds noble in principle, but people aren’t books. Sometimes you can judge them by their covers. Accurately. There’s also that whole issue of learning to deal with people in the real world. Which some kids will be surprised to find aren’t all wearing suits and ties come diploma time (and that not everyone who wears a suit and tie, or even most of them, necessarily have their best interests at heart).
In a nutshell, there is absolutely no reliable indicator of who you can trust in this world other than interaction and simple intuition. And students won’t develop a strong sense of intuition through being shielded from the big bad world. But in the attempt, they might just learn that adults can be every bit as petty and unreasonable as the worst high school stereotypes.
And that is a valuable lesson indeed. But I suspect not the one that they think they’re teaching.