How many American films can you think about based on the apparently universal experience of the nightmare of high school?
From Carrie, to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (middle school, but seems to be same difference…) via Glee, Twilight and so many others it has always struck me as being the nation’s defining drama.
A big part of the collective trauma is based on being judged on how you look. How attractive you are. What you wear. Which tribe that puts you in and how you rank on the squash ladder which has the Homecoming King and Queen at its apex.
They’re right – it is a bloody nightmare!
And then the state-run, nationwide institutions which endorse this code of values – good looks, popularity and social success – officially encode it at the end of each graduating year with that terrible concept: the year book.
I loathed every moment of school, but give thanks daily there was no year book, or ‘prom’ at the end of it. I did barely enough work to scrape through anyway, I was so busy thinking about how I looked and how popular I was and if a certain boy liked me. If those anxieties had been an official part of my academic life, I would have imploded.
And if I’d had to choose my outfit for school each morning? I simply would never have got there. My father was always sitting in the car blowing the horn and fuming anyway and I only had my pimples to cover and my greasy hair to tie back. A daily outfit? It would have consumed my life.
Which is why I’m a big fan of school uniforms. How terrible it would be to be the poor kid who couldn’t have the cool new clothes at a US high school. It would scar you for life. Or make you into Oprah Winfrey.
And that’s not the only equalising effect. School uniforms make everyone look equally hideous. Obviously we are not talking about the St Trinian’s or Britney version here… I mean real, nasty, polyester school uniforms.
I love those shapeless dresses Aussie teenage girls wear to school. I can always imagine their inhabitants getting home and sliding into their real clothes. The contrast must be extraordinary, but for the daily grind of school, those polyester sacks really do their job.
As a parent, though, I have found you sometimes have to bend the rules a little. My daughter’s school has an adorable tartan winter uniform. Here she is on her first day at school, five years ago. Aged FOUR, too too young, I should have kept her locked at her home, but there you are. That’s what happens when your birthday is all the way the wrong end of the school year (and read the excellent book Outliers, to see how that can disadvantage you your whole life…)
Three years later she graded up to Year 3 when the uniform changed from the dear little pinafore to a kilt. A nice idea, but hard when you’re the smallest child in your year and don’t have anything resembling a waist to hang it on…
Thus she would go off to school looking reasonable. And come home looking like this. Pure Eloise.
With a lot of very uncomfortable hours in between. That stupid uniform ate her alive. In the end I couldn’t stand it for her and changed the swamping kilt for a discontinued mini version I found lurking deep in the second hand uniform shop and swapped the stupid cravat for a nice comfy tie.
As you can see, she felt a lot more herself in this get up. And her results improved almost immediately.
So I’m a big fan of school uniforms for many reasons. They equalise the effects of income and beauty differentials and they can make inculcate collegiate spirit. But they do need to be comfortable.
What do you think? I would particularly like to hear from American readers (yes, that’s you Toby!)
And here’s one last (forgive me…) pic of Miss P wearing her uniform the way she thought it should be worn…