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What to Wear, or Not to Wear.... That is the Question

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Our neighborhood Labor Day picnic ended early because here in Virginia, the Tuesday following Labor Day is the first day of school. The teachers and the students and the parents all needed to get ready for tomorrow.

Meredith, Ophelia and I were talking about what to wear on the first day of school. Meredith is going into 2nd grade and that's easy. She'll wear pink because it's her absolute favorite. Ophelia will be starting her first day of middle school and she is sweet, smart, beautiful and nervous because not only will it be her first day of middle school, she'll be a new girl since her family arrived here in July. She has been planning The Outfit for weeks. That’s typical. Back to school outfits for middle school are sufficiently newsworthy to rate half a page of print and two full color photos in Saturday’s Washington Post because

Of all the challenges for girls entering the sixth or seventh grade -- new building, new kids, new rules -- there is none so daunting as The Outfit.

Sandra Markus, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York explains,
Fashion is not what defines a boy and doesn't define their pecking order in school. For girls -- I hate to say it -- it's all about what they are wearing.

Personal appearance is part of my curriculum, and I’m always fascinated with the response of sixth graders to a personal appearance activity we do. Working in groups, the students get a set of six pictures of age-group contemporaries gleaned from the back to school clothing ads. They also get six gender neutral names and six one- paragraph first person narratives.

Each narrative description mentions something about family; a hobby or sport; friends; some thoughts about school; other kids; what the teacher seems to think about them; and, finally, a goal. I set the timer and my students have five minutes to match the pictures, the narratives, and the names. The discussions are intense with kids up on their knees, pointing, grabbing, eye rolling, and that "huhhhh" sound of disgust that middle schoolers do so well.

Usually, when the timer goes off, the teams are pretty confident that they’ve got everyone sorted out correctly. I let groups offer their answers to who’s who, responding with nods and “Okays." Inevitably, there is is disagreement among the teams and consternation when I refuse to tell them right combination of image, narrative and name.

That’s when I ask, “So how did you know that the student in Picture 1 and the description of Student B were actually Morgan?”

“Well, because........” and then you can literally see the wheels turning in their heads as they begin to realize that they have assigned personality, school success, family relationships, friendships, outside interests, future goals, and even a name — all with no information other than an image. Is it fair? Of course not! Do we all do it? Absolutely!

Judging, sorting, and rejecting people based on appearance lies at the heart of the school uniform discussion. Do we change who we are by changing what we wear? Maybe. Some believe that conformity in dress will mitigate problems at school. That’s why in

Plainfield and Newark, districts that have long battled gang activity, low test scores and truancy, (school leaders) have latched onto the uniform idea, hoping to improve the academic and social climate in their public schools.

Does a polo shirt and khakis improve performance? School administrators and some parents believe that "The kids won't be focusing on clothing, they'll be focusing on their books."

Hummmm….maybe, but I wouldn’t put all my school improvement eggs in a polo shirt and khaki basket. Will a navy blue blazer and a four-in-hand tie turn a fifth grader into a future Ivy Leaguer? Certainly the prep school styling that some charter schools adopt is an compelling visual reminder of high expectations and the message that school is serious business. But at the end of the school day, when the blazer comes off, the weight of poverty, struggling families and competing pressures are going to still be sitting on the shoulders of some of those children.

But enough about the kids. I still have to make a final decision about my own outfit. I really like my black dress,but you know I’ve had that awhile and it would be nice not to show up in the same old same old. I have this cute new green dress, but it’s sort of more spring than fall looking. So maybe I’ll wear that new khaki outfit. Of course it could get hot and I’d be out there sweating on the bus ramp and that’s literally not cool. I think I'll stick with the black but with a big trendy necklace that sort of makes a statement. Which leaves one issue on the table: sandals or closed toe shoes? Maybe I ought to wait and see what the weather is going to be in the morning.

So many decisions and really, what difference does it make? Well, a lot actually. It matters because tomorrow, as I greet kids in the hall, they are going to form an opinion of me and my class and they will base it on how I look. And no matter how hard I try to remain neutral, I’ll be sizing them up based on their appearance as well. Like it or not, that first encounter will establish the baseline for our interaction.

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

So I just hope I have a good hair day!


2 Comments

As a teacher of one hundred and seventy and a mother of eight, I know and have experienced the challenges of The Outfit. This is a great lesson in visual rhetoric, assumption, and stereotypes. I may be adapting such an idea for my research class and maybe at home for my two who have just entered middle school. What an adventure! ~Kelly

Back in the 1960's I did not devote even one brain cell to my outfit for the first day of middle school. I showed up in September wearing the same plaid skirt, white blouse, bobby socks and oxfords I wore in June for the last day of sixth grade.

I instantly went from a well-adjusted kid with plenty of friends to stigmatized social outcast. It did not help that I refused to join the rest of the girls in the bathroom every morning changing out of the clothes their parents thought they sent them to school wearing to miniskirts and nylons held up by garters. I thought it was silly.

I paid the price. What took me by surprise was the long-lasting impact of those years on my personality. I eventually determined that society was something I did not want to necessarily conform to, and I developed great compassion throughout my teaching career for the so-called "weird" students under my care.

Some people (maybe John Taylor Gatto) might say I was damaged, and that my story is an example of one of the multitude of ways schools are "weapons of mass instruction."

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