Thursday, February 02, 2006

Regulate This

From the Saugerties Times of February 2, 2006:
I wore a uniform to school in the sixth grade. Actually, I had a choice between two: either a gray jumper and a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar beneath, or a pleated kilt with a top of my choice.

I wore a gray jumper. It was less expensive than the kilt, plus it didn't require multiple changes of shirts. What I didn't know was that no one wore a gray jumper. When I first set foot into my new school, I stood out, the lone gray island in a sea of tartan.

The other girls opted for kilts with a variety of riotously colored and occasionally boldly patterned shirts. My choice, or rather my mother's, clearly signaled to the other students that I was different. I didn't want to stand out. I was shy and wanted to blend in. Yet I couldn't, so I decided to embrace being different.

Like the glorious plumage of our feathered friends, the clothing we choose to wear sends signals. We communicate who we are, who we want to be, or sometimes, more importantly, who we don't want to be, through our wardrobe.

No one knows this better than teenagers. Their clothing is a language, communicating status, tribe affiliation and availability. Even when they strive to assert their individuality, the common struggle of all teens, they tend to do it in rigidly proscribed fashion. Artsy kids wear layers of mismatched clothing with homemade T-shirts, punks wear patches and spiked jewelry, jocks wear oversized jeans and polo shirts or hoodies, popular girls wear the latest in cute, form fitting clothing. Each clique indicates its membership by wardrobe.

The Saugerties board of education is proposing a dress code for the students of Saugerties High School. Included in the list of changes is eliminating gear with references to drugs or violence, hooded sweatshirts, outdoor coats worn indoors, and skimpy, revealing clothing. Anything indicating gang affiliation is also banned.

All of which is reasonable.

But teenagers, as any parent can tell you, are rarely reasonable. The board of education is in the unenviable position of trying to bail out the ocean with a thimble. Students at Saugerties High are tapping into a deep biological need. Every atom of their being needs to be able to signal to other members of their species, to encourage some approaches and discourage others.

Try as we may, we can't legislate need. Tigers can't change their stripes and teenagers can't stop being trouble for grownups.

Not even if we dress them all in gray jumpers.

--Erica Freudenberger


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