Finding freedom in a uniform
I drove with three friends past a high school in a large western Canadian town recently. It was just before nine in the morning. We were heading to the crag to climb on rock on a bright blue autumn day. We slowed past the school and gawked out of the window, all of us chewing on our own school memories.
Girls rolled their bums in low-cut jeans. Goose-pimpled midriffs sent enticing signals to the noses of healthy young males, who gathered in small groups, pushing each other around in an attempt to diffuse their aching self-awareness. Most of them wore skate shoes, baggy jeans, and big belts, and shaded their eyes under baseball hats. Someone or something had convinced them that this was the look they should choose.
I imagined one boy's eye catching sight of a silvery elastic stalactite of saliva stretching between the braced teeth of a young girl who was laughing inanely -- humoring another, more popular girl -- while doing her best to hide her anxiety about the spots around her mouth. The boy plowed his hands into his jeans pockets just like many other boys, all of them projecting an air of aloofness. One boy -- who never liked to remove his hat -- stared at his friend Matt, who spent 15 minutes each morning waxing and gelling his stylized messy hair and got all the chicks because of it. There was no way he could compete, he thought, at the same time eyeing Mr. Blake heading his way.
An English teacher, Mr. Blake was only 30. He wore stylishly subversive shirts with longer and wider collars than were currently available in stores. He liked to think he was somehow communicating free and creative thinking to the sea of listless eyes that confronted him each Monday morning.
The kids -- milling around outside this school in the throes of what is the most romantic time of one's life -- ushered their bodies into the building where many of life's wares are discovered for the first time. Not only is school a churning mill for the institutionalized, it is itself an institution of provocation: a place where a child can be groomed to get a job with statutory holidays, taxes, insurance, and pensions as well as a courtyard for a young person to become exposed to elements that may thwart the very direction in which he or she is being pushed by the institution.
Now, in Wales, where I grew up, all kids attending school -- comprehensive, primary, private, public -- were required to wear uniforms. And we wore them, complaining that we looked stupid and it was so boring and they didn't have to do it in America. Uniforms were the pits. My school's colors were gray and blue. Gray. Nine hundred gray children. A light gray V-neck sweater, blue shirt, school tie (gray and blue, with a taunting yellow strip, like the canned pineapples to the boiled vegetables), and dark gray slacks. Shoes, not sneakers. None of the girls looked good, but realistically that was down to the local gene pool. Makeup was not tolerated. Markie Rowlands wore black jeans because he was in the rem block (the remedial block, where the holes in the plaster board were bigger). His mother couldn't afford gray slacks, sir. He was the hardest kid in the class, and the hardest kid doesn't wear the uniform.
Madonna was responsible for a steady stream of girls waiting outside the head's office wearing eyeliner, a lace glove, and leggings beneath their skirts. Most of them came back to school the next day with their hair flat, looking like they'd been dunked in a vat of gray polyester. But there was always something left -- one shagging handle earring, inked graffiti on the back of a hand, or a sly smear of lippy after PE. That stupid uniform wasn't going to grind them down.
Granted, the bulk of those kids outgrew their little rebellious stands and took up their positions in the tax landscape: children of their own, Friday nights at the pub, and one stressful Christmas after another. Until eventually nostalgia clouded the homogeneity and they found themselves reprimanding their own cracker spawn for listening to rap and calling Mr. Collins in geography a bitch. What the uniform gave us, however, was something real and tangible to push against. A physical injustice that gave rise to an awareness that we were being controlled. At least that theory was there for those of us who wanted to recognize it.
Cruising slowly past this very average Canadian high school, with its very average teen behavior on display, it occurred to me that uniforms were a good thing. Precisely because they were a tangible symbol of control and I think they forced the kids who were more inclined that way to think outside the box, be more creative, more subversive. The fashion fodder was and will always be exactly that, and they will keep buying what's put on the shelves. And when I look over these North American youth, it was all too apparent that they had their own uniform that came off the same shelves. They had nagged Mom and Dad in the mall for these jeans and that belt. They wanted the latest thing to look cool, to fit in, as of course we also did, in and out of our glum uniforms. But the big difference is this: We were forced to look the same, and these kids chose to look the same.
And as we passed the school and continued on our way, I realized I was glad for the uniform at Ysgol Aberconwy and the way we provoked authority with our tie knots -- some fat like cravats, some thin like rulers; the way we wore black jeans occasionally and told the teacher that our school kecks were in the wash because the dog was sick on them, sir. It was something to be united in. Not as a strong, unified institution, but as group of young people with a common political point: that uniforms suck.
Stewart Hughes lives in British Columbia and spends a great deal of time rock climbing. Reprinted from the Spiritual Pollution issue of Adbusters (March/April 2006). Subscriptions: $35/yr. (6 issues) from 1243 W. 7th Ave., Vancouver, BC V6H 1B7, Canada; www.adbusters.org.