Morris: Dress Code Says All Is Back to Normal
On the one hand, the little kerfuffle at Fort Wayne’s Northrop High School is too trifling to make a big deal of.
But on the other, it invites discussion because it is such a welcome sign of normality in a time when all traditional values are under constant assault.
And by “normality,” I mean the kind of dispute we had before the great Red State-Blue State divide, a topic worthy of spirited discussion but not weighty enough to start fistfights or break apart families.
While students elsewhere might be accusing their elders of systemic racism or pushing the boundaries of gender fluidity or agonizing over climate change while happily anticipating the death throes of capitalism, Northrop students are protesting . . . their school’s dress code.
To be fair, it is the dress code for all of Fort Wayne Community Schools, but a school system spokesperson is quoted as saying that Northrop “has new leadership, which is enforcing dress code more strictly than in the past.”
That makes the protest so understandable. No students like to think their contemporaries in other schools are getting away with something they can’t. Especially if they think the rules are being unfairly applied in their own school.
The crackdown “is only on the girls,” one student protester said, apparently in reference to the parts of the code forbidding exposure of the stomach and bare shoulders. “They can either ease up on females or they can make it equal to everyone.”
That has such a nostalgic, 1970s, “I am woman, hear me roar” vibe, doesn’t it?
In response, the FWCS representative expressed admiration for the students’ efforts: “We appreciate that students want to stand up for what they think is right and what they think is not right.”
Isn’t that just so darn polite? We can almost expect the students and administration to sit down over soft drinks and cookies to mediate their way to an agreement while “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays softly in the background.
I’m old enough to remember when a school’s “dress code” was whatever an overbearing teacher told a cowering student. Oh, maybe there was something formal – hammered out in secret in the faculty lounge by teachers smoking cigarettes and telling dirty jokes – but all the students needed to know was, “Johnson, go home and cut those sideburns” or “Miss Johnson, cover up those knees.”
By the time my sister got to high school a few years later, administrators were reacting to social upheaval by enacting strict dress codes and making them ever stronger. She remembers her school’s being so draconian that she was not allowed to wear pants until her junior year.
And by then students had collectively decided to start wearing jeans, which amounted to a self-selected uniform. Since the students all had more or less the same appearance, there was no individuality expressed, therefore no disruption of the education mission, so the teachers were happy to let it slide.
That’s the whole secret both of dress codes and student reaction to them. They are efforts to dictate a uniform without actually creating a uniform. Or calling it that. And young people naturally rebel against uniforms by adopting the same kind of rebellious clothing, itself a uniform.
Most people, whether they admit it or not, are comfortable with the idea of a uniform, dressing more or less like everyone else in the group they interact with the most. So, it’s not about the uniform, but about who creates it.
I learned that in the Army. So many of my fellow soldiers complained about peas-in-a-pod conformity, being made to dress alike and march in lockstep and strictly obey every order, that they failed to recognize what a good disguise a uniform can be. Those who impose it are so focused on the outer homogeneity that they overlook the subversiveness of those of us nurturing our inner individuality.
That was the old Army, alas, when our military strived to be a meritocracy whose members of were forged into a single force with the sole purpose of defending the United States. I can’t say what the uniform standards are today, but they can’t be very strict when our generals, along with high school students, are mostly concerned with systemic racism, gender fluidity and climate change.
But that is the new normality, and I think we’ve already established that I much prefer the old normality.
Which is hanging by a thread.
The Fort Wayne school spokesperson, while admiring the students’ stand on principles, told a reporter that the district could review certain parts of the policy in the future, “but the dress code itself is here to stay.”
That’s the most normal thing I’ve heard in at least the last year and a half. It’s enough to make an old man weep with gratitude.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.