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Last month, a group of New York pupils on a field trip walked into a Manhattan church for a black-history revue. Although the stage held the main attraction, the fourth- through sixth-graders' blue slacks and skirts and white blouses so impressed adults in the audience that a few asked what private school they attended.
Their principal, Bettye Howard, beamed as she informed questioners that the kids came from the public Jackson Elementary School. As she told Newsday, "The students came up to me and said, "They think we go to a private school.' It made the children feel good about themselves."
Howard's story illustrates the wisdom of President Clinton's command to distribute guidelines to the country's 16,000 school boards on how they can require uniforms: They are attractive, they emphasize learning over superficial trappings and they make kids feel good.
Of course, there are detractors: groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which protests that uniforms are unconstitutional; parents who bemoan the supposed high costs of uniforms; and children who protest that they will lose their "individuality" and "personality" if forced to wear plaid.
Legally, the issue is ambiguous. Although one wouldn't know it from Clinton's politically clever proclamation, school boards already have the power to require uniforms if they choose to do so. But in Long Beach, Calif., which began requiring uniforms in 1994 for all 70,000 children in kindergarten through eighth grades, the ACLU has filed a case saying uniforms discriminate against poor children who can't afford them.
Although uniforms can be expensive to buy, the cost-per-wearing becomes minimal after a few weeks. And since uniforms are highly durable and tend not to show dirt easily, children rarely need more than two or three skirts or pairs of slacks and maybe five shirts.
The question of free expression is less clear-cut than that of cost. Many children interviewed in the nation's newspapers over the past few weeks, especially high schoolers, were vehemently against uniforms.
"Some people express their personality through their clothes," said Autumn Thompson, 14, who attends a New York high school. "I like to be unique. I don't want to look like everyone else."
And although a recent national gathering of principals showed 70 percent in favor of uniforms, many supervisors disagree.
"Kids are kids," Plainville superintendent James Ritchie said this week. "They need to be able to express themselves in ways that make them feel good about themselves and their generation."
Feeling good: the mantra of the school self-esteem movement. What about taking away the baggy jeans, the snazzy sneakers, the ever-present baseball caps, the Ralph Lauren sweaters, and making kids feel good in other ways? By raising their hands in class without worrying whether their peers are judging them by their clothes. By feeling free to walk the halls and knowing they won't be attacked for their jewelry or their shoes. By simply doing well in school and not being distracted by such superficialities as clothing.
Uniforms will prevent clothes competition and the unnecessary expenses that accompany it, stop clothing-related violence and create an atmosphere conductive to learning and only learning.
I went to a private high school where we wore uniforms: pleated black watch plaid skirts and green, white or navy polo shirts for the girls, khaki pants and polos for the boys. Nearly every other morning, I recalled my days in public junior high school, when I frantically searched for the right denim skirt or the perfect blouse, and counted my blessings that life was this easy and uncomplicated--at least on the outside.
Uniforms may not be the most pressing item on Clinton's agenda right now, but they have an impact far beyond their appearance. They create a sense of community, a sense of unity--and most crucial, they make school seem important. Few other changes are so easy and yet so far-reaching.
Sarah J. Schaffer's column appears on alternate Fridays.
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