When I was a senior in high school, I got sent to the principal's office for breaking the dress code. It was the early 1990s, grunge was God, and my favorite pair of vintage Levis -- a relic from my father's closet -- had holes in the knees.
And jeans with holes were strictly forbidden.
I had known I'd get caught sooner or later, but I didn't care. There didn't seem to be a good reason for the rule, and as I sat in the principal's office, spoiling for a fight, I told him that. Because I was essentially a good kid -- with the attitude of a Mack truck, but a good kid, nevertheless --he humored me. They're distracting, he said. My knees are distracting? I gave him a look of disbelief.
He tried another tactic. We don't let students wear jean shorts. If we start letting people wear jeans with holes, they might try to wear jean shorts. You've gotta be kidding me, I said. I can't wear one because I can't wear the other? He told me those were the rules and said don't ever let me catch you wearing those jeans in school again.
Recently, I saw myself in a Ridgeway High School student who came before the Memphis City Schools board of education. The commissioners were talking about tightening up the uniform policy, closing some loopholes. The young man asked that they rescind the policy.
He spoke about how the policy does nothing to solve the gang problem. Unfortunately, the board has never said anything about combating gangs with its uniform policy. What they said when it was enacted was that they wanted to take the focus off clothing and put it back on student achievement. And while they were at it, they wanted the students to look better: no more saggy, baggy pants or tiny tops.
As the board talked about the new restrictions, the Ridgeway student looked disgusted, as if he couldn't understand why it would be so important to wear a white shirt every day.
With my history, it's no surprise I've been skeptical of the policy since it was enacted. Shouldn't baggy pants and other inappropriate clothing have already been prohibited by the individual schools' dress codes? If they weren't enforcing that, how would a uniform policy change anything? I couldn't help but put myself in the students' shoes (heels less than one and a half inches, no flip-flops), and I know I would be bored with khaki/tan pants within a week.
The policy certainly has its good points: Uniforms help school officials quickly spot visitors. Parents seem relatively happy with it. Several members of the business community have stepped forward and made clothing donations.
But has it really made a difference in student achievement?
The district's state report card hasn't come out yet, but research elsewhere has shown that uniforms don't usually correlate with marked improvement in test scores. And I'm no Anna Wintour, but I think I can say that a white polo shirt with a white sweater is definitely a fashion "Don't." From a fashion standpoint, at least, the kids just look like a bunch of little caterers.
On the first day of school, students look sparkly and clean. By the end of the year, though, the uniforms only make it more apparent who can't afford them.
At one school, I saw a girl wearing a tan velour track suit, Ö la J.Lo. Then there was another girl in her class whose white polo shirt was gray with repeated washings. The collar was frayed. She had to wear a T-shirt underneath because of holes on the shirt's shoulders.
What happens when poor kids' uniforms wear out? White isn't the easiest color to keep clean, and because of the restrictions, there are no easy substitutes.
Maybe all this is putting the focus back on student achievement, but to me, it just looks like dressing up a problem. And not very stylishly, either.