And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
And they all get put in boxes
And they all come out the same."
— Little Boxes, Malvina Reynolds
The School District of Philadelphia has a uniform policy — K-12, all schools are supposed to have uniforms. At SLA, we have our lab coats and a "dress respectfully" code that, by and large, kids have always really respected. (I believe our official wording is "Dress in a way that would not detract from the learning of others.") It, for me, has been a way to honor the district’s policy while honoring the kids’ individuality.
Next year, Jakob starts kindergarten — a fact that I’m not quite willing to admit yet, but that’s another post — and Kat and I have looked at a lot of different options, and we’ve narrowed it down to two School District of Philadelphia schools that we’re waiting to hear back from. Either school would be a fine choice, but one school enforces the uniform policy much more than the other. I am surprised at how upset I am about Jakob having to go to a school where there’s a uniform policy that would limit what he wears.
Some of this has to do with my own desire to live in my jeans. I taught for years in jeans at Beacon. Game day was jeans and a tie and blazer, but jeans. Now, I wear a suit three or four days a week, and my students almost never see me in jeans on school days because it’s not worth fighting the fight to prove to the outside world that I can be an effective principal even if I don’t look like their expectation of what a principal should look like. After all, I still get the "aren’t you too young to be principal?" question enough that the suit or the khakis just make it easier.
But as Kat and I were buying holiday gifts for Jakob, and we were thinking about clothes we should and shouldn’t buy him based on the uniform policy of the school he might attend next year. It made me sad to think that he’d have to wear what everyone else wears. Jakob at five already has a cool sense of style. I don’t want him in collared navy shirts and khaki pants every day. I don’t need him to look like every other kid. And I find myself resenting the idea that someone thinks he should. And I admit, it makes me less excited to send him to a school that would want him to.
So what’s the larger policy question, then… do we draw a parallel between the way we ask kids to dress and the way we teach them? Is it a stretch to argue that standardized curricula and standardized assessments are easier when you look out onto a classroom and see only a sea of navy and tan? Is it any wonder that the rise in a return to school uniforms in US cities has coincided with No Child Left Behind?
Finally, I’ll argue that uniform policies are part of a paternalistic infantilization of children on the part of schools. "Dress respectfully" encourages students to figure it out for themselves. It asks them to understand that school is a serious place that is different than the home, and that students should dress in a way that allows everyone to learn without clothing being a major distraction. But it also allows them to express their individuality in important ways. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s something very right about that. Our schools should be about teaching students to make smart, honorable decisions for themselves and their community. How we choose to express ourselves through our dress is one of those decisions. Our schools should be a place where kids can learn that.
And I still want Jakob to be able to wear his jeans.