“Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it.” ― Tallulah Bankhead
The other day I was at the mall when the sight of a teenager shuffling around in flannel pajama bottoms reminded me of my days of teaching and the constant struggle over the kids’ sartorial choices. My urban school system finally decreed uniforms for everyone, but the students still managed to put their personal stamp on whatever they wore.
In the last few years I was teaching, the pre-invention-of-the-belt look became popular with the boys. The idea was to lower the waistband of your pants until they hung at the absolute bottom of your derriere, thereby providing your audience with a colorful view of your underwear every time your shirt rode up, which was most of the time. The classier boys wore two pairs of underwear – one for the purpose intended, the other for viewing.
While I grew really tired of my students appearing as though they were perpetually on the verge of sitting down, the droopy drawers did serve the purpose of slowing down anyone running from authority, since it’s particularly hard to get any speed up if the crotch of your khakis is riding at your knees. Carrying anything at the same time was problematic, too, since one hand was needed to keep the pants from tripping you entirely.
I sometimes wondered, though, if some of my male students found blessed relief in the new required uniforms. Many of my female students were spectacularly endowed and were enthusiastic devotees of the cleavage-as-accessory line of fashion. Now everyone was forced into polo shirts, which, no matter how form-fitting, still had only that three-button opportunity for exposure, and might allow the boy sitting next to them a least a glimmer of focus on classwork. Unfortunately, this mandated above-the-waist modesty was often cancelled by the girls’ trousers, which looked as though they’d been applied by a compressor.
It was a constant tug of war between enforcing school rules to the letter and looking the other way so I could actually get in a little teaching. There was a considerable amount of giving an inch and taking a mile going on.
Could they wear a shirt under the polo? Could they wear a sweater over the polo? How many pockets were allowed on the khaki’s? If they had stitching similar to jeans, did that move them to the true, and therefore forbidden, jeans category? It was almost easier in the good old days when everyone would show up in their gang colors.
Other kids expressed themselves with blue hair, tattoos, or piercings. A student would appear in my room looking like a member of the Young Republicans between her neck and her ankles, but would have on high-heeled shoes, purple anklets, and a piercing in her tongue that made her a candidate for speech therapy.
Over the years of teaching, I must have grown really oblivious to the eccentricities of my students’ wardrobe choices. On one especially frigid late winter day my honors English class erupted into applause upon the arrival of one boy to my room. At that moment I realized this was the first time we weren’t looking at his knees. He had worn shorts every day of the school year, no big deal until you remember that this was
not exactly a tropical paradise.