The Look

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.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.