For the past ten years, I've driven on the same side streets to get to work, weaving my way through the neighborhood and connecting to a main thoroughfare. Along my route, I pass three school bus stops. One stop is for elementary school age children and other two for middle school and high school kids. The elementary age kids are usually smiling and dashing around, chasing each other, as an adult monitors them and keeps a protective eye out for them. The middle school group is fairly sullen looking and huddled together like a bunch of football players reviewing their next game play. The high school kids, well, generally, they are spread out, sometimes in pairs, sitting on a curb, hoods up-heads down, looking like they're awaiting a flogging. It's the same thing year after year after year, with perhaps one exception, that being the appearance of the middle school and high school groups. In the past four or five years, I've noticed a disturbing trend. These kids were going to school looking as if they'd either just rolled out of bed, or they looked like thugs. Girls wearing pajama bottoms and house slippers and the guys wearing pants slung down past their rear ends were becoming common attire. How did this happen? In what society is it acceptable for children to dress like this for school? When did these kids get so lazy and their parents stop talking to them about looking neat, clean, and respectful and put together? Even with five children, my husband and I managed to give them a brief once over before they left for school every morning. Oh sure, there were the usual offenses. The girls usually had to change clothes because the skirt they borrowed from a friend was too short or their eye liner looked like two burnt holes in a blanket. The boys suffered from wrinkled shirts or pants so dirty they'd stand on their own. And after whining and complaining and pleading their case, they'd realize they were A; Going to be late for school if they kept complaining and B; they were going to lose the argument because they were the children and we were the parents...Period!
Yes arguing over how our children dressed was tiring and seemingly endless. With five kids, there was always someone who was going to push the boundaries of cleanliness and what was considered appropriate. But, being consistent and setting a positive example was part of our responsibility and description as mom and dad. It's often not a pleasant or easy job. And I know that my kids didn't always follow our rules or example. That was clearly demonstrated when I asked one of my daughters to change her shirt, but then, she stuffed the 'offensive' shirt in her backpack and put it on once she got to school. (She'd borrowed the shirt from a classmate) When she was told to change her shirt at school and I received a phone call at work, you'd better believe that now she would have a backpack check every day too!
Now, with the new school year starting, students attending public schools in Cape Girardeau have to adhere to a school uniform. It's not really a uniform per say. It's more of a dress code or guideline, according to the Cape Central High School's web site. Among the guidelines, students must wear- "Clothing within one size of proper fit. Clothing shall be clean, in good repair, with no holes, cuts or tears." For the complete listing, you can log on to http://www.cape.k12.mo.us/CHS. The guidelines don't appear too horribly unreasonable. Yes, I understand the debate about the cost of the clothes and the right for people to express their individuality, etc. I honestly do. As a kid, I was made to wear uniforms too, while I walked up hill both ways, in the snow, to school. Granted, I was not attending a public school, but, I still hated it! The plaid skirt with the white shirt...blah, blah, blah. It was boring. It was plain. But, I did it because that was the rule. Back then, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I didn't dare try to buck the rules. My mother would have had a fit with me. And if we wanted to express ourselves, we could do it after school or on the weekends. Even now as an adult in a professional work environment, I have to adhere to a dress code. Sure, I'd like to go hog wild and get my nose pierced or maybe dye my hair pink. But because I care about how I'm perceived and because I want to keep my job, I stick with other things to express my individuality. Shoes, accessories, nail polish and a like help me to be a little more...me. It's tough. I'm a child of the 70's; free spirited. I still hate conforming. And that personal struggle leaves me constantly fighting my own urge to break the rules.
Look, the debate over uniforms in public schools encompasses so many larger issues than simply what children should wear to school. It touches on issues of school improvement, freedom of expression and the "culture wars." It's a debate that will surely rage on in Cape Girardeau and eventually, perhaps, in surrounding communities. There's no easy fix. And I thought I knew how I felt about the issue until this morning. When I drove past the school bus stops I was pleasantly surprised. The kids all looked neat and well put together. I didn't see anyone in fuzzy slippers and I didn't see anyone's underwear. Shirts were buttoned up and all cleavage was covered. I have to tell you, it made me smile. Those kids looked nice.
I suppose from now on, they'll have to save their pajama bottoms for evenings and weekends, just like the rest of us.