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Class Notes
Uniform fuss misses big picture
(Published February 6, 2006)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

My school recently introduced uniforms: collared blue or white shirt and khaki pants. There has been a lot of support from parents, and a lot of dissent from students. The school has worked hard to convince students to wear the uniform: assemblies, letters and phone calls home, and, two weeks ago, kids being asked to go home and change if they come to school out of uniform.

To the school, it’s about safety, pride and discipline. Random kids from off the street stick out when everyone is in uniform. Gang colors vanish. Distractions like expensive clothing or plunging cleavage are minimized. Wearing a uniform means you’re part of a team; there’s a sense of belonging and community. Plus, once you have a few pairs of khakis, it’s cheap and easy getting ready for school. These are the positives.

A friend of mine recently commented that "it’s troubling that public schools that have uniforms are predominantly minority and poor." Are we preparing our students for a life in uniform, i.e. the military, low-end service jobs or prison? Are we requiring uniforms simply to keep order, like 1984 writ small?

On the flip side, why do expensive private schools have uniforms? Are we helping our kids learn the rules of the game, where image is part of opportunity? Many of my students don’t know that there is a uniform for job interviews: coat and tie, conservative skirt and blouse. Last summer, a Bell student had an internship at the World Bank. He noticed that when he dressed professionally, he was treated like an adult. He liked it so much that he was noticeably snappier when this school year began, even before the uniform policy.

That student is the exception. Repeatedly, I hear from the kids: "How can you ask us to be independent thinkers when you don’t allow us to express our individuality?" And they have a point: part of wearing a uniform is about conformity and following the rules. Historically, many of the rules were there to keep people like my students out of power. On one hand, we encourage our students to speak out against injustice and to act for social change, yet on the other hand, we impose conditions on their life that they perceive as unjust. I doubt the school would win in court if we were to suspend a student for not wearing a uniform, and rightly so; in America, we have a right to a free and fair education.

Even so, I strongly support uniforms for students. Before uniforms, I wore a tie almost every day. Since the introduction of the uniform, I’ve worn the uniform every day. I do this to support the administration in encouraging kids to wear it. I do it to support the kids, by showing that it’s OK to wear a pair of khakis and a button down in a professional work environment. I also do it because it helps me approach the workplace in the right frame of mind. If I’m wearing a tie, I act differently than if I’m wearing a tie-dye T-shirt. And I support the uniform because I think that it promotes better education among our students.

I believe that the fuss about uniforms among the kids is missing a bigger picture. It’s not about individuality. It’s about better learning. There are many ways to express your individuality besides clothing; it’s a sign of how inarticulate my students can be that they fear losing this one outlet from 8:30 to 3:30. I don’t condemn that – I like fashion and I respect the fact that our kids want to show some style. Yet, I’ve seen as a teacher that the style has come at the expense of learning.

Somewhere along the way, my kids have internalized the message that the way you look is more important than who you are, that your worth is measured by bling on the outside, not knowledge on the inside. The uniform has been a great leveler. The kids know who "has it" and who "wants it" intellectually, and now there’s no gang color or cool outfit to hide behind. If you want to stand out, you have to do it academically, and the group you belong to is the school group. When my students enter the classroom in uniform, half of my classroom management is done – I have a group of professionals, ready to work. Contrast this with the "before" case: I have vivid memories of 10-minute student conversations like "Is that a North Face jacket? That big yellow one? He looks like Big Bird!" This leads to fights.

I don’t believe that our kids should be put on an assembly line and force-fed certain ideas. I believe very strongly that the strength of our country has been innovation and original thinking. I see the uniform as helping this. My kids rail against the uniform, in part because they have no other realm in which to express themselves. My job is to give them the keys, the essential knowledge and skills required to be a poet, an astronomer, a hacker, a moviemaker, a business owner. My second-grade teacher used to ask me to "put on my thinking cap" when confronted with a tough problem. So now I tell my students: "Put on your uniform."

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Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

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