Yesterday I was telling my chiropractor the story of the year my Catholic school decided that, contrary to years of sexist tradition where the boys wore uniforms of green corduroys and lighter green Oxford shirts and the girls wore green and brown plaid jumpers over white shirts year round, the bitterly cold Upper Michigan winter weather seemed to suggest that some allowance for girls to wear pants (in the winter only; come spring…which in the UP arrives somewhere around the 4th of July…it was back to jumpers alone) was in order. If you got a pair of green corduroys, you could dispense with the jumper and just wear your white shirt and pants, and a green sweater if you had one.
My fourth-grade self was just one of many jubilant girls who were tired of shivering in our cable-knight tights. Even as 10-year-olds, we knew the dress code was ridiculously unfair, and impractical. However, my personal celebration of this common-sense advance ended abruptly when I found out that there was a specific kind of green corduroys that would allow me to partake of this policy change, purchasable at a specific store, and only those green corduroys would be allowed.
But this wasn’t mentioned up front, or if it was, I missed it and it wasn’t in the letter that went home to my folks. So when my mother, frugal out of necessity, picked up a pair of secondhand green cords for me, and I wore them to school the next day, I had no expectation that there was going to be a problem. Green cords are green cords, right?
Evidently not. I was informed that I was out of uniform, because I didn’t have the approved green cords; my green cords were unacceptable, and I would be allowed to wear them only if I still wore my plaid jumper on top. Which, of course, was mortifying, because I was in 4th grade, and the first stirrings of that invisible adolescent audience were catching up with all of us, and who wears a dress AND pants at the same time? Losers, that’s who. (Nevermind that, fast-forwarding 30 years, I wear dresses tunic-style with jeans on the regular in the winter.) But I did it, because I lived in Escanaba, Michigan, and winter was, in a word, harsh. Nonetheless, I was hyperaware of my goofy outfit and self-conscious the entire time. It was probably the first time in my life, too, that I was aware of money issues in my family. Probably not something a 10-year-old needs to be aware of if it can be helped; I had no problem with the pants until the school did.
I never understood, then or looking back, why this was so damn important. The point of a uniform is the order imposed by taking fashion originality out of the equation, but, at least nowadays, it’s also to somewhat erase obvious, visible financial differences between kids, in the hopes of removing one of the sources of youthful angst by way of competition/comparison/shame, in the name of greater focus on the academic agenda. I’m at a loss as to how my ultradiscounted green cords threatened disruption to the educational mission since, color-, fabric-, and function-wise, they were indistinguishable from the more expensive approved pants. Who would’ve taken a bunch of people who took vows of poverty and humility for label snobs? But they were, and the powers that be at Holy Name decided that they needed to call attention, attention that could only be negative, to girls (plural; I wasn’t the only one) who couldn’t afford those pants by making them wear their inexpensive pants with their jumpers, instead of just letting it be. Strict adherence to arbitrary rules was far more important than letting a girl just be warm without hassle or comment.
This week a 7-year-old girl was sent home from her school in Tulsa because the powers that be at her school decided her hair didn’t look “presentable.” Whatever the hell that means, but given a school “hair code” (seriously?) that lists “Hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks and other faddish styles” as unacceptable, there was a racial element involved, because the code explicitly prohibits two styles that are primarily worn by African-Americans, styles that are traditional and not at all “faddish.” Banning an afro for many African-American children is telling them, in as many words, that the hair that grows out of their head naturally is unacceptable. Which is nothing short of fucked up.
In any case, I really don’t think it’s the place of school staff to determine appropriate hair for students, and I say this as a former teacher myself. That’s a fight for their parents, if they’ve got nothing better to do than have that argument with their children. A kid’s mohawk, dreadlocks, or blue hair has nothing to do with my efforts to educate that child. As a student, other kids’ hair wasn’t distracting to me. I knew one girl who had really interesting dyed hair in the 9th grade, and when I thought about it at all, I was merely impressed by her bravery; somehow I managed to get an eduction despite her presence. If hair is distracting in the classroom, greater focus on the part of the student, and better effort on the part of teachers to have kids engaged in learning activities is what is called for, not the shaming and ejection from school of a little girl who probably left the house that morning thinking she looked cute, and left school that afternoon crying.
Take a look at Tiana Parker, and tell me how distracting, how disruptive her hair is.
She looks to be sporting a little girl hairstyle, to my eyes. She got up, put a pink bow in her hair, and went to school, like a million little girls every day. But because someone else had it in their head, and their code, that it wasn’t what they liked, what they found “presentable,” they decided to make a little girl feel bad.
I’m really not sure how a hairstyle can be “serious and respectful.” Surely, seriousness and respect is in the person, and not in his/her hair? But then again, I recently read an article where women who work in big cities like New York were told their curly hair was not “professional,” and that they were expected to straighten it daily if they wanted to get ahead at work. I really don’t understand that; people’s hair is their hair. Expecting them to drastically change it is silly and unproductive, and grossly inappropriate. You may as well ask them to change the color of their eyes for your pleasure.
There is so much privilege and entitlement underlying the decision in Tiana’s situation, and the policy to begin with, it makes my head spin. The racial implications. The sexist implications that made a little girl’s appearance public property, to be commented on, molded to some imagined ideal the poor kid wasn’t privy to, and related to that, the greater societal lack of boundaries that makes everyone’s body our business when it’s really, really not.
But if you aren’t prepared to have those political conversations, there is something more fundamental wrong with this picture, and it is this: adults should not be engaged in the business of making children feel bad about themselves. Honestly, they shouldn’t be engaged in the business of making anyone feel bad, but an adult who cannot grok the difference between raising and guiding a child, and using their power over a child to bend them to their own will for no practical, sensible reason, merely ego and habit, is not a healthy adult, and has no business being in a teaching role. If you cannot teach this child because of her hairdo, please, get the hell out of the classroom. If your primary concern as an educational institution is the hairdos of your students, please, get the hell out of education entirely. Because it’s just hair. And the hair of children is a non-issue, barring a school lice outbreak. A teacher or administrator shaming a child because of their hairstyle, or their green corduroys, is petty, foolish, and does nothing but make the child feel bad, and mistrust adults with good reason.
Almost every story of outrage I’ve read about Tiana Parker mentions the fact that she’s a straight-A student, as if that somehow makes things worse. As if it would be okay to give her a hard time about her hair if she were in fact a mouthy punk of a failing second-grader? I submit that an adult who wants to get into it with a 7-year-old about her hairstyle is wrong, and ridiculous in the extreme. What earthly difference can Tiana’s hair make to anyone but her? And how insane are your power issues if your answer is, “A huge difference”?
Over the years, I’ve heard and read horrible stories of teachers behaving badly towards kids, making small children feel small inside in myriad ways by mocking them for their clothing, their speech, their sexuality, in the name of discipline and policy, and as a grownup, and still a teacher at heart, I’m ashamed and saddened that these people are not grownups, or have egregiously misunderstood their role as an adult when it comes to kids. It is not for adults to belittle. It is not for adults to model a complete lack of sensible perspective with a child as a target. It is not for adults to bequeath their unexamined indoctrination that has most certainly damaged them to some degree unto the next generation. If you’re going to take on the job of raising children, as a parent, teacher, or other mentor, Job One is to get your own crap sorted before you start shoveling it onto innocents who have little power to resist it, and, in most cases, abundant faith in your good intentions and expertise as an Adult, however misplaced it may turn out to be.
Which is to say, sending sweet, cute little Tiana Parker home over her hairstyle that doesn’t look much different than many little girls’ hairstyles just makes you an asshole. At best.