A Uniform Life

March 15, 2011
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One of the most sobering images of my life was a factory of children being churned out, wearing the same thing, one after the other. An endless factory line of kids in a brick building, the only light source being the flames that ignited the fuel, which made the gears hiss and turn, making a horrifying, spine tingling inducing sound effect. The children were faceless, as if their faces had been melted to resemble a bleak, nondescript facial feature. The parents outside of the building were shouting, screaming, and throwing things at the behemoth of a brick building. The camera swiveled and turned around, the light getting darker and darker, and the chorus of lost souls growing louder and louder. We don’t need no education. Hey, teachers, leave those kids alone!
No, this wasn’t on some overly leftist news broadcast, nor was it in an overtly political film. This was a scene from the music video for Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”. I saw it on VH1 when I was six, back in the days where VH1 and MTV actually had music on them and not old, irrelevant rock stars finding wives or East Coast idiots getting drunk. This was the era of rock. But the music video was a message about boarding schools and how cruel they were, and how they churned out automatons who couldn’t think for themselves. Perhaps the most striking image was the clothing on the children. It was all the same: a boring set of white dress shirts and navy blue pants. There was literally nothing else to distinguish anyone else by clothing. Little did I know that this would have an effect on me a year later.
After a year at a public school where I was basically asked to leave because they didn’t know how to challenge me enough (they should have made my study Chinese), my mother scoured the state for worthy private schools that could give me a good education. After spending a good 8 weeks with a tutor to test my intelligence, I was deemed “stupid”. Sylvan Learning Program, a conglomerate of people with Botox worthy smiles plastered on their faces, said I was stupid because I was impatient. I hated the exercises I had to do and just cried, like any logical child. Hoping that my ulterior motivated sobs would get me out of the program, my mother followed through and the only thing I got out of it was a pack of scented markers.
Jump a year and my mother finds Roadside Academy, a neat little school located in Middletown in what is, in essence, a house. Three stories tall and seemingly squalid form the outside; this would be my home and my brooding center for seven years. But, I was not expecting having to change my wardrobe. Not a fashionista by that time, or at any time, the dress code was moderately strict. Blue or white dress shirt or polo, with navy blue khakis, and a specific kind of sweater vest, with the name of the school embroidered onto it. I think I had an emotional breakdown two weeks into it. Scared and tired of wearing the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again, I pleaded and begged that I be allowed to wear something else. The principal, a kindly man named Mr. Thorpe (who had started the school) declined. I believe, even at the ripe age of seven, I used the analogy that “wearing a uniform was like having to paint with one color for the rest of your life”.
He did, however, make a compromise with me. He said I could wear cool socks. And that was it. Past second grade, one was not allowed to wear polo. It was only dress shirts from there out. And so I took full advantage, wearing the funkiest socks I could get. Some were bleeding purple, some were boring blue, and a few really didn’t match. There the ones I had with skulls on them, and some with firemen on them, and I had, of course some Star Wars themed socks. And during that time, I found creativity in writing.
After a few years, I became either complacent or brainwashed. Not only were uniforms not a problem, I loved them. I took every opportunity outside of school to wear my uniform, much to the dismay of my mother. I even, on occasion, would come to school wearing a tie. Finally, upon my graduation, I kissed my uniform goodbye and good riddance. I now was a free person and I could wear whatever the hell I wanted to.
After realizing that I would be able to dress freely at my new school, I knew I would keep it relatively prim and proper and not go overboard. I was in Southampton, New York during the summer before my freshman year of high school with my best friend and his aunt and we were going to Brooks Brothers to pick up some things for his uniform. He attends a private school called Xavier, in which the men look like little action figures of what people look like on Gossip Girl. On the way there, his aunt turned to me as we were walking to the store and said, “Hey, Kyle, you’re going to a new school, huh? Guess that means you’ll have to have a new sense of style, huh?” I didn’t have a clue of what she was talking about and just nodded my head and smiled. We arrived shortly after, walked in and spent a good half hour choosing his garb and when we were finished, his aunt turned to me, looked me straight in the eye and said; “Now it’s your turn.” Being in a fairly high class clothing store was not in my comfort zone. I must have worn a face that screamed, “What? Me? This place? Are you kidding?” to which she read my mind and said, “Don’t argue with me.” And so, another half hour was spent picking out nice polo and pants for me, something I could wear throughout the school year.
CIBA was an interesting and overwhelming experience. I decided that maybe uniforms were a blessing, or a curse, depending on your point of view. I came in, wearing what I used to wear at school. A blue dress shirt, khakis, a belt, and socks. Everyone from then on got the impression I was an uptight person with OCD. My mannerisms and personality in general did not help to change that impression. Every action and every word I spoke seemed to exude that I was either very religious or very gay. When you pair “I don’t believe in premarital sex” with “Oh my gosh, I love that movie La Vie en Rose!” you shouldn’t be surprised. Yes, that’s judging a book by its cover, but even prancing down the halls and the incessant singing of show tunes suggested to my friend’s parents that something might have been up. I was also excruciatingly formal, always shaking hands with people I met and avoiding unsavory topics of conversation. I was so formal, people sometimes questioned as to my legitimacy as a human being. Or even as an adolescent. Again, paired with my views on romance, the outlook was unique. It was as if I had been conceived in 1938 and my birth mother had just, for the fun of it, decided not to give birth to me until 1994.
I didn’t bust out my full regalia, as in suit, tie, pants, the whole nine yards, until a few weeks after my dad’s death in September. My friends were taken aback, so much so that Quentin walked up to me and asked, “Did someone die?” It was one of those moments where one puts their shoe in one’s mouth. I winced and said, “Well, actually…”
After getting used to the flow of classes and workload and a new social environment in general, I created a specific system for myself as to how I would dress each week. Monday would be “Dress Like Mad Men Monday”, a throwback to the popular drama on AMC in which people dressed spiffy and drank copious amount of alcohol and smoked a limitless amount of cigarettes, so that would mean I would dress in a dress shirt, tie, and dress pants; Tuesday and Wednesday were dedicated to wearing polo; and Thursday and Fridays were dedicated to being casual, and cool. It was then that I was free to wear jeans, the kind of clothing I hadn’t dreamt of wearing in over seven years. However, the definition of “cool” is arguable.
I managed to follow my pattern relatively well throughout the entire year, making special exceptions to wear my suit. One of those special exceptions was actually Valentine’s Day. I didn’t have a Valentine, but I thought it’d be fun to roam around singing songs from the 1950s like the appropriate “My Funny Valentine” and the irrelevant “Cabaret”. I ended up weirding out someone I liked who had been in a relationship at that time by giving her a present and a shot glass! The shot glass contained the typed lyrics to “I Get a Kick Out of You”, the joke being that I liked her so much that she was better than binge drinking (hence the shot glass), narcotics, and euphoria at high altitudes.
One thing that always threw off people who saw me in a suit was my shoes. I have only once owned a pair of dress shoes and that was back in the fourth grade. I don’t know why I don’t have another pair, but I make do with what I have, and what I have is a pair of black sneakers. At least they aren’t white. But, whenever I wore my suit, someone would say, “Oh, you look nice, but…your shoes.” I would nod solemnly and move on. It also looked very strange at a Mormon dance; this silly girl with ravishing hair dragging around a small, squeamish kid wearing a suit and tie and, of all things, a pair of sneakers.
And throughout my career as a student, I have kept my hair at a relatively short length, except for my freshman year of high school. After being complimented on it as it grew out, I let it grow out a bit more. It is an obnoxious, annoying thing to deal with. Having short hair just improved on the whole “neutered virgin” look. One doesn’t want to confuse anyone else.
Sophomore year came and I began it the way I did last year. I was slightly looser with my routine than I had been the previous year, but, for the most part, it was the same kind of look most of the scheduled days. But, I was greeted to having a new student on my bus, a freshman named Albert Hawkings. He had shadowed the previous year, and everyone noted that he was “just like Kyle”. People began calling him “Freshman Kyle”. He is indeed astute and prim and formal. His formalness rivals even mine. Organized and just as neurotic, I knew I would like this kid. And, as fate would have it, he dressed the same way I liked to, and, when given the chance, would dress in a suit and tie to school. If it weren’t for his parents restricting him, he would wear a suit every day, he told me.
There was some bomb dropped on the school in terms of dress code policy. About the second or so week of January, my mother informed me that the East Hartford Board of Education was passing a uniform policy. The sound of the word uniform made me feel a rush of pleasant feelings of being a boring and sqaureish child. She didn’t elaborate on any details and her description of the move was vague at the best. I was kind of excited, sadly. Then again, I am the kind of person to get excited when some old movie no one under 40 has even heard of is being transferred to Blu-ray, like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. But the policy change did make me think of what people were wearing these days. I must admit, in comparison with some things I’ve seen, it wasn’t all that bad. Yes, some girls could use more strategically placed neck lines, but I’m a prude, and besides that, it wasn’t any kind of Janet Jackson scandal every day, or even close to the horrors my mother describes at her job.
When working at a public high school, one of the perks is getting to see sides of your students you never wanted to see in the first place. That involves thongs, breasts, the hint of your butt check when you are standing up straight, or some guy wobble his way to one of his girlfriends and nearly falling flat on his face because the waist of his pants are at his calves. CIBA did not have this serious problem, and if it ever did, I knew I would be the first to get up on a soap box with a Bible and preach the word of decency. If I am the kind of prude to make a big deal out of the not really obscene blouses people wear, Lord knows what would happen if I went to East Hampton High school. I’d probably die from “over exposure”.
Though my mother was really vague and murky about the details, a fact for which she yelled at me and asked how she would know anything more, the moment I got on Facebook, there was buzz about it. News travels inordinately fast at my school, partly because we live in an age of instant communication and partly because it’s really small. So small that the teachers know more about your personal lives than your parents do. But the kind of angry buzz surrounding this news was like the deafening buzz of a swarm of Africanized honey bees, or Heath Ledger winning an Oscar after he died and got pity votes.
This buzz was controlled, with almost librarian-esque technique, by Matt, who I acknowledge as my big brother. As if he and my mother were somehow related, Matt is a big proponent of questioning authority, but not in a deliberate and annoying sense, but more of a logical, if slightly unorthodox sense. Willfully acknowledging that he would not spend money on uniforms for only a year at the school, a plethora of comments swarmed his status, in which the method of the passing of the new policy was called into question, as well as the inevitable complaining about having to wear the uniforms.
I unwisely asked what the big deal was, and the main point was a need for self-expression. I understood that. I wasn’t really a proponent of the policy, but I had not real qualms against it since I was used to it. I found that the drastic and extreme state of the policy was a big annoyance though, as opposed to phasing the uniforms in. Of course, my regular attire was cited as my opinion being irrelevant. And more than once. Yes, I like wearing spiffy clothing, but since when did that make my opinion irrelevant?
To further discuss and eventually rally against the move, a discussion group was created on Facebook. And swarms of posts and comments were on the board in only a few hours. Questions, petitions, etc. A petition was started, and the few comments I made were perceived as directly in favor of the policy. After reading the billionth comment from a freshman calling CIBA blah and shouting about self-expression, I just wanted people to shut up about it. But, I didn’t leave the group. Rather, I just didn’t say anything for a while longer.
I was definitely in the minority of those who did not care about the effects of the policy. It just seemed to me that people had the impression that uniforms were like leeches and would suck every ounce of self-expression and creativity from their bodies. I managed to get through it, why can’t they? And then I thought, I’m the child that enjoys watching foreign films and silent movies. Uh, maybe I’m not completely sane. But, I had forgotten that my main form of creativity was writing, and steadily becoming photography. That wasn’t necessarily a step up, but it was something on my side. But, even with that, I was only one of three people who did not mind the change, one of the others being, of course, Albert.
For further proof on my side, rather than using scientific and evidential proof, I emailed a few of my past “colleagues”, including my principal, one of the students of that school, the school administrator, and the parent of my best friend and noted drill sergeant. I only received one reply, but I found it fitting enough. The fact that I had it made me happy, and in my mind, a little scoreboard with neon lights read Proponents of Policy: 1 Opponents of Policy: 0.
Instead of instantly caving in and saying “Oh, yeah, I hate this policy”, I angled for a specific aspect of the problem, and that was the method with which the bill was passed. Apparently, the meeting had been scheduled on a snow day, so no one who was against the move could even vote, and almost no public opinion was factored into this move. It’s kind of when you’re going to have a movie party and when you plan a movie for everyone else, you do it so only the people who want to watch a certain movie get to pick. It’s what I’d do if I could run SAB so we didn’t have to watch White Chicks, but that is neither here nor there. But even that got me enemies, one particular person citing me as the blame for the policy being passed.
Throughout this entire time, I was seeing that this change would be for the better and just as light and moderate as it was for Roadside. Girls could wear sneakers or something if they wanted and all were allowed to wear colored socks. Mixing it up a little for the sake of fun and being fanciful. I was apparently very wrong about that. Last Friday, an assembly was held to discuss the new policy. The principal, Mr. Burrow, spoke quickly and with gusto, and tried, as hard as he might, to sell the kids on the idea. It was like trying to sell kids a snuggie. One would expect to expect questions during a presentation about an important policy change, but all opinions and questions were squandered. Matt, in particular, kept raising his hand, almost as if his arm had taken Viagra. Mr. Burrow refused to answer questions, and this stickler quality was notorious.
Mr. Burrow has a loud voice, one that carries from country to country and sends shivers down the listener’s back as if they were facing a serial killer from a movie. It is noted he does not have the best of tempers. When he is angry, his face becomes as red as a beat, and he rants on and on about things. And it is also noted that Matt and Mr. Burrow do not have the most amicable relationship. Having had enough of what Mr. Burrow perceived as Matt’s antics, though there were none, Mr. Burrow spent several minutes after the presentation reprimanding, as only Mr. Burrow can. And like the Emperor building a brand new Death Star, all hope was lost. Matt found that the policy change was more politics than anything else, and worse, counterintuitive. There was no point in rallying against anything or petitioning, as it was a political move.
People had been complaining about looking unattractive in uniforms, and I was under the impression they had been doing so without having seen them. One senior noted that “uniforms are sexy”, but since she wouldn’t be at the school the next year, her point wasn’t really valid. During Mr. Burrow’s presentation, a mock up, model, or whatever of the uniforms was shown. A boring and distasteful red, black or grey polo shirt with black or khaki pants with the IB logo emblazoned upon them. Now, that didn’t sound so bad, that is, until he started talking about the regulations. As if he were some clothing Nazi, he continued and said that socks had to be matching solid dark colors, belts had to be brown or black, and for girls, skirts had to be above the knee. He is no fashion expert, so people wondered how he thought we would look in the drab, dull, and highly enforced regalia. I could hear the sounds of plaid shirts crying, not even the owners.
It was this unwillingness to give leeway to students, who were already not fond of the principal, the man who was giving his students more reason to despise him, that made me “convert”. Not unlike seeing Jesus in the thread stitching on my own blue polo shirt, I switched to becoming extremely irate. People wanted to do very strange things as a means of protest. I even suggested attending the school in drag. With such a strict regulation, how many dozens of kids would get called to the office because of some minute violation of the policy? What if, theoretically, a girl wore her skirt 3 1/16 inches above the knee and went all femme fatale on him? Would that make him change his mind? A little nudge?
It was interesting how big of an impact uniforms had had on my life. It was a relatively positive experience, but people can only handle routineness and lack of change for a finite amount of time. Even though I’ve reportedly hated change since I was 3, in which my mother would often tell people that I was a Republican and would have voted for Nixon, I was willing enough to broaden my views for other people. Why couldn’t the school board do that? Were they so drenched in the world of politics they couldn’t notice that uniform s have neither a good impact nor a bad one and that it didn’t matter either way? Whatever the answer is, they might as well take the clothes off my back.

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