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School Uniform Rules Conceal Students' Unique Identities (NOT!)


Voice of Experience

Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Kathleen Modenbach reflects on school uniform regulations at her school and on the ways in which students there have managed to circumvent those rules -- at least temporarily! Included: Join a discussion about school uniforms.

Modenbach William sat in the last row of one of my English IV classes last year. He came to our school from England at just about the time school uniforms became mandatory for our students. Smart, quiet, and a bit counter-culture, William liked art, literature, and -- most of all -- his unique identity!

I knew that William and the uniform code would clash, but he wasn't the type to express his displeasure in a loud manner. Instead, every day, William wore a very '50s sport coat. The regulations permitted sport coats as long as the uniform was visible underneath, and they said nothing about plaid sport coats. So William was following the rules -- while making a statement.

It wasn't until a couple of months into the school year when I realized that William had been resisting the uniform code all along -- without saying a word. He had pinned small, metal campaign-style buttons with T-shirt and CD music sayings on them all over the front of his coat. Those sayings, although not vulgar, would have gotten William or any other student in trouble -- if they had been large enough to be noticed.

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Having noticed them, I quietly told William that I admired his originality, and then shared his secret with a few of his other teachers. They too appreciated his creative act of quiet defiance. We never dreamed of turning him in. You see, we all understood that despite the many benefits of uniforms, one of the main drawbacks is their suppression of individuality.

Generally, I don't like the idea of school uniforms, but I have come to see some of their benefits. I recognize that, in the classroom, uniform dress puts all my students on even footing. Even understanding those benefits, however, I still admire those creative student efforts that say, "Here I am! Look at me!"

Kids will always find ways to preserve their individual identities in spite of uniforms; the real question is whether teachers and administrators can keep up with their subversions.

The variety of subversive ideas is limitless. And the dress code has become cumbersome to enforce as numerous amendments have been added to it in an effort to deal with those subversions.

Consider hair. Hair colors and styles are one outlet for students' creativity and individuality. Stuck with a uniform hair length rules, some students began to appear with gel-fortified spikes on their heads. Soon, spikes more than 3 inches in length were outlawed. Streaks of color -- and whole heads of "inhuman" hair colors such as maroon, green, and orange -- soon adorned students' heads. But not for long. The colors faded as the dress code rules on hair grew.

Or facial hair. This has always been a big "no-no," but some guys did start sporting a few hairs on their chins. As the goatees grew thicker, the trend was stifled by administrators who made the offenders buy throw-away razors and shave at school.

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What about socks and shoes? No one thought to include those in the dress code. In the winter, some kids strolled the hallways with shoes that had outlandishly high heels and thick soles. Sox were multicolored and sported unusual patterns and designs. In summer, backless beach shoes were worn until the code was adjusted to require leather shoes. Students soon found backless leather shoes that didn't really follow the code.

Or jewelry. Earrings were never an issue until the guys started wearing them. First, hoop earrings were banned because of safety issues. Later, to avoid being labeled sexist, the dress code was changed to allow earrings for boys. Then students started wearing multiple earrings to show their individuality. Some took to sporting several pairs of earrings on the tops or lobes of their ears. So the code was changed to allow only one earring per ear.

The bottom line is that the uniform dress code can't keep up with all the changes made as students search for their unique identities. Enforcement is a nightmare. Who has time? Clearly, teachers and administrators don't. We have already spent too much time punishing kids like William. Kids will always find new ways to express themselves, to stretch the rules. Let's just focus our energy on teaching them. Isn't that what it's all about?