Ironing out the details of the kids' dress code

September 09, 1997|By SUSAN REIMER

DRESS CODES are arriving home in the backpacks of school children everywhere this week, and I am amazed at the kinds of things school authorities feel they must go on record against.

No bare feet. No naked midriffs. No exposed bras or boxer shorts. No T-shirts advertising Co-Ed Naked this or that. None with Big Johnson slogans. None with hate slogans.

No body piercing. No tattoos promoting drugs, sex or alcohol. No spiked jewelry or spiked hair. No face painting. No dressing in all-black or any color that might signify you as a member of a coven or a gang.

No gym shorts. No bike shorts. No sweat pants. Nothing without a hem. No tights or stirrup pants unless a top covers your butt.

No tube tops, halter tops, see-through tops or muscle shirts.

Nothing with holes in it. No tops that fall off the shoulder. No pants that drag on the floor.

No sports team Starter jackets for which someone might kill you.

Wow. You mean somebody actually has to write these things down?

You mean it doesn't automatically occur to parents that sending a child to school half-naked or with his underwear showing or with a T-shirt advertising the size of his you-know-what is, ummmmm, inappropriate?

I guess bureaucrats do nothing as well as write rules and guidelines, and kids do nothing as well as rail against them, saying we old hippies have become old hypocrites and refusing to believe us when we say that no one had to tell us not to wear a mesh shirt over a bra in middle school because none of us had the nerve.

And civil libertarians do nothing as well as take arms against these rules, and school dress codes are regularly challenged in court on free-speech grounds. The Supreme Court, they argue, settled this long ago when it ruled that no one has the right not to be offended by another's speech and what your clothes say counts as speech.

But soon, principals tire of arguing with smart-alec students who stay up late scheming to circumvent the rules and embarrass the enforcers, and they start talking about school uniforms, a topic that made President Clinton's 1996 State of the Union address, for heaven's sake.

School uniforms are all the rage in urban areas, because they are believed to restore order, reduce peer pressure and improve test scores, results against which no one can argue but which no one can prove. The only quantifiable advantage of uniforms is to the parent who need no longer fight with her children on that topic, at least.

But it is difficult to encourage a tolerance for diversity in an environment where personal appearance is regulated from the top down, and if schools are indeed going to hell in a handbasket, I'm not sure requiring everyone to wear dark trousers and white tops isn't a naive remedy. If a school's test scores have fallen through the floor and kids are beating each other and their teachers, it is hard for me to imagine that shirts with collars are the answer.

On the other hand, if you advise students to "choose their attire and arrange their personal appearance in a manner which is healthy, safe, inoffensive and not disruptive to the educational process," to quote the rule that governs my kids, you leave a lot of room for argument, and there is nothing adolescents like to do more than argue.

Personally, my children do not need a dress code so much as they need a time limit.

My son is so conservative that his wardrobe consists of plain T-shirts in blue, light blue and dark blue without so much as a Nike swoosh over the breast. He needs a time limit so he will stop asking me at 10 p.m. to wash and dry by morning one of the three shirts he is willing to wear.

It is my daughter who is so severely time-challenged that she may have to begin sleeping in the next day's outfit so she can get to school before classes are dismissed.

If she does that, she will eliminate at least one step in an excruciating selection process, and she may actually leave for school in the clothes she settled on late the night before while her mother shrieked at her that clothes have nothing to do with the real you inside and couldn't she please just get to bed.

"But I have to know that I will feel comfortable in it," she says through her teeth.

"And I have to know that all your uncomfortable choices won't end up on your bedroom floor on their way to the laundry basket," I say through my teeth, which is how we are talking to each other these days.

This is the most miserable experience I have ever had with Jessie, who is changing her clothes as often as she changes her mind, which is averaging about four times before breakfast.

There is a lot of wiggle room between basketball shorts with tennis shoes and a skirt, hose and heels, and while my daughter is wrestling with the devil of indecision, her father is saying very unhelpful things like, "No daughter of mine is going to school showing that much leg."

If the superintendent of schools or the middle school principal would like to make home visits to help Jessie get dressed in the morning, they are more than welcome. But I can see where that would not help Jessie learn to make choices and decisions based on internal values rather than function within arbitrary limits imposed upon her.

So I guess that leaves me -- the source of all my children's internal values and arbitrary limits, whether they like or not. In my role as the human dress code, I intend to adopt the guidelines used by the doorkeeper at St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican when he decides what garments worn by tourists are acceptable.

When asked what standards he applied, he answered:

"None. I just decide."

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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