“I can’t go to school today. I don’t have a thing to wear.”
“I’m not coming in to work. Nothing fits.”
“Sorry, can’t make the party. No threads.”
A cool wardrobe can take us anywhere. It’s our ride to town, our ticket to popularity. An inadequate closet, on the other hand, makes us depressed and agoraphobic. None of these outfits can cover up the disappointment we feel about our body. They don’t give us the confidence we need to face our peers.
Sometimes the closet issues are just a way to avoid where we’re going. In very rough neighborhoods, if we head out dressed in the wrong color, it’s not just a faux pas. It’s a motive for murder. Even in neighborhoods that look calm on the surface, battles are waged in the morning before millions of kids get on the road to school.
“You’re not leaving the house dressed like that!”
“I’m NOT wearing the yellow raincoat. You can ground me till I’m a hundred.”
“No child of mine’s going to be seen with a ring through the eye!”
All children reach a stage where any ideas of any grownups are stupid. Parents go to the bottom of the list of people to ask about anything. Kids give their full attention, respect, and loyalty to the most confused person they can find in their age bracket. Peer approval is everything.
When I was at this stage, my friends and I wore Levi’s and striped Penney’s T-shirts. Period. To ratchet up the bonding, we added navy watch caps and started calling each other by our last names. Pulling off this kind of gang activity meant getting permission to use the phone the night before. We had to set up a network of compliance.
“May I please call Martha and Liz to ask what they’re wearing tomorrow?”
Our parents conferred over a cocktail and set some limits.
“When your homework is finished, you may make one quick call.”
Since parents were so stupid even then, we waited for the second cocktail and stayed on the phone for as long as we wanted.
But that was in the late fifties, in the heartland, where waving wheat fields surrounded the humid suburbs of Tulsa, Oklahoma. And that was the extent of our rebellion.
When we converged with other kids at Jr. High, we heard whispers of real gangs, dangerous gangs. But always at other schools, in other parts of town. There were tough girls who dressed in black and hid razor blades in their ratted hair. They were the Black Widows, and they could and would inflict bodily injury to protect their turf. Everyone said so.
At our school we groveled to join elitist social clubs called Skippers and Merry Maids. Our top priorities were to cling and to conform. We wore a shiny Circle Pin on the left side of our starched Peter Pan collars. An anthropologist might have interpreted this as a cultural symbol of our virginity. We knew nothing about anthropologists; we just wanted to look exactly like Nancy Van Muehler. She wore her Bobbi Brooks hooded car coat slung off the shoulders, straight-jacket style, arms through the sleeves, fists on her hips. The furry hood rode snugly on her butt, a pre-conscious pubescent display, if an anthropologist ever saw one.
Nancy had an enviable slouch, and could roll her eyes, chew gum, and sneer at the same time. We all tried our best to copy her, moving about the school foyer in threes and fours. Synchronized sheep-like behavior, a social scientist might have observed.
My strongest memory of late childhood is just a feeling. A deep aching to belong, a painful fear of not belonging. This same fierce need to fit in is what motivates kids to come to school today.
“What would you say is your number one reason for coming to school today?” I ask my 7th graders occasionally, offering an invisible microphone.
“That’s easy. To see our friends. That’s the only reason we come to school, ever.”
Children move toward school in the morning like a vast colony of ants, constantly communicating, exchanging goods and information along the route. The school bus is a rolling cocoon, swelling and pulsating in the mysterious process of metamorphosis.
“Here’s the math homework. Can I wear your shoes till lunch?”
“Justin wants to know if you’ll go out with him.”
“I brought the eye shadow and earrings.”
“Tell him I’ll tell him at recess.”
“Don’t get makeup on this tank top. It’s my sister’s and she’ll kill me.”
“Hurry. Put these on over your shorts. We’re almost there.”
We are always amazed when a fuzzy striped caterpillar crawls out of its dressing room and unfurls its gorgeous new butterfly wings. And when the big yellow bus rolls to a complete hydraulic stop and the door hisses open in front of the school, our jaws drop again.
Sweet little girls now look like Barbie the Streetwalker. Vulnerable young males add bulk and bravado by going baggy.
“Don’t overreact,” I caution myself.
On the modern playground a teacher is wise to choose her battles. A school’s Dress Code rarely conveys a community’s sense of what’s decent to wear in public. It simply spells out the consequences for wearing certain arbitrary artifacts after a specific number of warnings. We have driven the ‘do your own thing’ thing into an abandoned parking lot on the desperate side of town.
I favor a pleasant uniformity: children dressed in colorful variations of practical camp clothes. But I don’t draw the line until some popular style becomes a safety issue. I blow the whistle when I see a student hit the pavement because he’s hogtied at the knees by the crotch of his own pants.
“You need a belt,” I spread my arms and shrug. “I rest my case.”