June 2009

He Says, She Says: School Uniforms

Author: Keith Kelson & Lindsey Hawkins | Photographer: photography by anne

I have to be honest. I used to be firmly in the middle when it comes to the debate on school uniforms. Now, I’m almost 100 percent in favor of them. I attended public schools here in South Carolina, and I never had to wear a uniform. I actually would have happily worn a uniform as long as there was no necktie involved and if boys were allowed to get really, really dirty at recess. I admit that times were different back in the old days when I was a kid. Back then, most television stations would sign off at midnight and there were only three major networks. Grover, not Elmo, was everybody’s favorite furry monster on Sesame Street. The concept of 24/7 news or entertainment was not even on the horizon. It was a simpler time.
Back then, a child didn’t have to worry about getting teased or becoming an outcast because he or she didn’t have the latest designer fashions. The same cannot be said today in the majority of our public schools. When I look at pictures of myself and my classmates from those days, I see no fancy designer labels. Now, there could have been kids sporting the latest fashions from New York or Paris, and maybe I was too busy drawing the killer whales to notice. In fact, I can say that I and most of my peers didn’t get really concerned about what we were wearing until we reached high school. But the majority of us natives are just naturally cool.

But today you have kids forming little fashion cliques as early as elementary school, thanks to the almost nonstop advert sing they’re subjected to while watching television. Kids are told daily that they must have the latest and greatest gadgets, doo-dads and clothing.

Small wonder kids today are more concerned about what they’re wearing than what they’re learning. Maybe if MTV would make education as cool as the latest law-breaking rock star… Don’t hold your breath waiting for that one.
I agree that personal freedoms and the creativity of individuals are important, but let’s face facts: Whether you work in an office or in a fast food joint, you will have a dress code. You will have to conform to a standard. Why should school be any different? If the parents, the school and the students involved agree on a uniform, is that a bad thing? When you have a job interview, do you just throw something on and hope that it’s clean? No, you’re told to put on the proper attire of someone looking for gainful employment. Likewise, being a student in a school, one should be about the business of learning. How creative is it to follow a fashion trend anyway?

It could be argued that allowing kids to wear the latest styles and fashions is an unofficial uniform. Spend a few moments in any school and you’ll be able to spot various cliques. Thanks to today’s cookie-cutter mall mentality, most of the kids will be wearing the same “gear” on the East Coast as their West Coast counterparts with a few exceptions. Back in my day (the ’80s), the kids from the East Coast looked nothing like the West Coast kids and were proud of it. Every region had its own unique, distinctive style.

The main objection students will cite when you bring up the topic of uniforms is that they feel all uniforms are drab and dull looking. That’s the crux of the matter right there. Not that they feel like drones in a Borg ship from Star Trek or that uniforms stifle their freedom of expression. They think uniforms are ugly. One solution is to fly to London’s Savile Row and have my personal tailor/fashion designer, Oswald Boateng, produce some uniforms for the kids. Or you could task the kids with coming up with tasteful, yet fashionable uniforms. Be sure to emphasize the word “tasteful.”
Nowhere is it written that school uniforms have to drab. No one would design a drab varsity jacket, now would they? Tell the kids that this is their opportunity to show everyone just how creative they really are.

Clothing: it’s not just for nakedness anymore. What was invented to keep the ticks out and T and A covered has been around since Adam and Eve bit the apple and first felt that uncomfortable breeze. Not two shakes of a leaf later, clothing became a symbol of status. From dyed fabrics and rope sandals, powdered wigs and 15-pound dresses to Air Jordan’s and Tommy Hilfiger, Abercrombie & Fitch and platinum rings. It’s always been about the haves and the have-nots. So much so, that people literally kill for fashion, even school-aged children.

Call me over-dramatic and move on about your day or Google school violence and read the statistics. Web sites such as educationbug.org document such case studies as the effects of adopting school uniforms in Long Beach, CA, which appeared in ??Psychology Today in September, 1999. This study reported that, since switching to school uniforms in 1995, there was an overall drop in the crime rate by 91 percent, an overall drop in school suspensions by 90 percent, sex offenses were reduced by 96 percent, and incidents of vandalism went down 69 percent.
In this particular case study, an urban area where school violence is typically higher, there was almost a 100 percent turnaround in violent acts in just four years by controlling the way students dressed. One can only imagine the possible correlation between school uniforms and other problems in our school systems such as low overall GPAs and lack of focus on curriculum.

How does clothing affect GPA and attention span, you might be wondering? Well consider the effect the female cleavage has in the office environment. We’ve all experienced it, if not been the one who was sporting the fashion trend, and have seen the power of the over-exposed boob. It’s hard to focus on the task at hand when our id takes control and our minds shift into thoughts of fantasy or jealously. Conversations for the rest of the day aren’t going to be about bottom-line and budget, they are going to be about happy hour invites and passing judgment. And just think, this is just in the world of sophisticated professionals.

Now imagine again what it was like, and still is like in the hormonal, self-conscience world of pre-teens and teens trying to find their place in adolescent society, while preparing for college and a means to economic and societal placement. The provocative nature of some clothing is just one valid distraction in the school system that can be eliminated. Dress-code is a perfect way to eliminate such distractions and many schools try to implement such codes; but what about the undeniable presence of socioeconomics?

Another major distraction in the learning environment is just another fact of life that, unfortunately, can be directly correlated with clothing leading to jealousy and profiling and thus leading to violence, insecurities and educational distractions. Those with money tend to say socioeconomics don’t really exist, and those without money tend to say they do. Not all children need a structured environment to successfully retain knowledge, but in a classroom where students outnumber teachers 40:1 you tell me how structured you think the learning environment of students should be.

In a world where metal detectors are installed and basic dress codes are implemented to ensure students don’t decide to pack their emotional burdens into a gun-wielding trench coat, you would think structure by any means necessary would be a priority over the need for Coach purses and True Religion jeans as a form of self expression.

I understand the psychological need for self-expression and the monetary concern over school uniforms, but think about the value of safety and knowledge for our future leaders and then cry me a river. By all means if your child wants to express him or herself through wardrobe then he or she can do so after school, on weekends and during spring, summer and holiday break. I think the tax dollars being spent to detect the weapons coming into schools might be better spent on the quality of the environment and methods in which we teach and raise our youth.
Discipline and routine go hand-in-hand in a learning environment; save self expression for more productive and rewarding outlets like music, sports, writing, theatrics, etc. Trust me, I think Calvin and Ralph will understand and might even appreciate a higher percentage of college graduates who can afford to buy their fabulous clothes each season.

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