Armed only with an incurable yawn, I greet students who enter my city high school in a residential neighborhood in Boston at 7:30, as I do every morning. My welcome is warm, but short-none of us want too much back and forth so early in the morning. I am friendly and approachable, but serious and already working hard: I am the dean of school and school culture, tasked with following the school’s dress code and scanning each student for compliance.
Students must wear a shoe dress or black sneakers, khakis or pants and a school logo decorated with a polo, sweater or fleece. In the meantime, I’m wearing a well-worn flannel, which I wore more than a dozen years ago, in high school. Other mornings I’ll be at millennial meetings — Tony Soprano buckled for a few bucks at the thrift store or just whatever’s on top of the laundry pile. I feel almost hypocritical.
Inevitably, several students are outside the dress code. Some are in Crocs. Some have intricately colored and expensive Jordanians. Some with Ugg boots. They usually have excuses or even a change of clothes on hand. I can work with that. But the only offense that refuses a student to enter the building these days is a face without a mask. I work mainly with colored students of financially limited backgrounds, and the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant financial and emotional impact on many of the families I serve. As my colleagues and I encourage students and their families to be vaccinated, it is essential that our school community continues to disguise itself daily in our classrooms to avoid possible outbreaks or outbreaks. That’s why we added masks to the dress code.
Generally speaking, we maintain a dress code because it helps to create a unified school identity. It also helps our students be recognizable and valued members of the Boston local community when off-campus. Of course, there is a compromise: as any child will tell you, compliance with the dress code can often come at the cost of individualism and creative expression. Many fail to realize the extent to which educational tools — teaching, uniforms, delicate interaction of rules, and personal expression — were used to forcibly assimilate Native Americans in the era of distribution and assimilation around the early 20th century. And while I have a lot of history with – and a lot of opinions on – clothing codes, I’ve found that our new mask policy has put the whole idea in a new light. The merging of the dress code with public health policy has helped me see how the dress code can be used for noble purposes – and how a fair dress code, when applied correctly, can illustrate how broad the definition of “professional” should be.
School uniforms have followed me for most of my academic and professional life. And when you have to wear a uniform, you adapt strongly to its gradations – what allows you to be and what not. In kindergarten and first grade I attended a private school with a blazer and tie, then in 2nd to 8th grade I wore a relaxed combination of a polo and a long-sleeved sweater.
In those early years, I struggled with my sense of belonging. As a black man, attending mostly white private institutions, it was surprisingly rare to interact with adults who looked like me. I found myself mixing the most. My stupid uniform helped me escape the eyes and judgments of those who perceived me and understood me differently, but still did not have the language to formulate it. My gaze helped me indoctrinate myself in the school system, but it didn’t bring me closer to feeling who I was. (My very presence, uniform, and all that added to the school’s “inclusive” reputation.) I’ve been able to take advantage of everything the school has to offer – as long as I dress the way they want and keep my hair in shape. which they consider socially acceptable. It’s a shame I didn’t even know I could grow bars until I was young.