So now we have the jumper. It just arrived in the mail. It's plaid, of course, with a particularly jazzy red stripe set atop blocks of various blues. The only thing I'm not sure of is the fabric. The tag says "polyester blend," and I'm wondering who came up with the idea of blending polyester with . . . antiballistic metal. Holy shield of armor, this thing would survive a nuclear blast.
"Honey, your uniform arrived!" I say to Anna. She's just entering first grade, and this is what she'll wear. "It's a dress?" she says, holding it up. "Why is it so hard?"
"That's just . . . uniform material," I say. "It's so the pleats stay in." This is my educated guess. I can see in my memory the image of my mother at the ironing board, trying in vain to make those accordion pleats of my grade-school kilt fall in formation. I can picture high school friends who had long since given up, their pleats distant echoes, their skirts crying out for help in the billowing breeze.
"Cleats?" Anna says.
"Pleats," I say, pointing to the folds. She has so much to learn. Entering the uniform-wearing life is a passage.
Blue knee-highs, Peter Pan collar, blazer with the school insignia embroidered on the pocket, I've worn it all -- over and over again. Blah, blah and blah. Most of my uniforms were hand-me-downs from my two older sisters. Meaning: old and tired and ill-fitting. From September until June, fashion was not part of my world. The theory behind the uniform-wearing life is that there are far more important things to worry about than clothes, which I guess is true. Even so, I have to wonder if the restriction set me back. What of the growing need to express oneself with personal style?
Anna puts on her plastic-coated jumper, then visits the image in the mirror. "Zoe is going to wear this, too?" she says. "And Kaitlin and Victoria?"
"And Jessica and Amanda, too," I say.
She loves this idea, smiles wide, twirls her way into the living room.
Give her time. This is still a novelty. She is a child whose growing need to express herself sprouted early. For years she wore a cat-ear headband, and a feather boa "tail" tied around her waist, each and every day. This was not supposed to be cute, or funny. This was just her look. She would add to it, sometimes tucking maple leaves into the headband, and sometimes a tiara overtop the headband, and for a while there she had a little plastic chick she would nestle into the cradle of the tiara. I'm wondering now how you confine a kid like this to the uniform-wearing life.
When I was in seventh grade and sent to a public school, where there were no uniforms, I was excited. I went shopping and persuaded my mom to buy me a pair of boots made of blue and green and red and brown and tan and black suede. A real explosion of suede. When I wore them to school for the first time, some girl laughed at them, and then another girl did, too, and pretty soon it seemed my whole loser life was going to be defined by those boots. That same year I wore a red, white and blue belt with red fringe that hung down to my knees like some sort of torture device. I discovered, that year, that when it came to fashion the only thing worse than not being cool was trying too hard to be cool. And so I would spend whole evenings putting on outfit after outfit, trying to find a look that was all mine, spontaneous and free.
I never found it. I was relieved when my mom sent me back to a uniform-wearing school two years later. It took the pressure off. And I had more time for homework.
"Mom, this thing feels like I'm wearing a toilet tank," Anna tells me, returning to the mirror and holding her arms out like a fat robot.
I tell her I just have to wash it a few times, soften the fabric. Even I don't believe me. She wants to know if she really has to wear this thing every day. I tell her the note from school said a solid blue jumper from Target was also permissible. She begs me, pleads with me, to take her to Target. It's pathetic. I feel her pain. This is just the beginning of her uniform-wearing life.
The next day we go to Target for all of our back-to-school supplies. We get the blue jumper. The fabric is considerably softer, and they have some nice Peter Pan-collar shirts. In another department they also have feather boas. For the sake of nostalgia I buy her the pink one, and as a show of support I buy me the purple one. We take them home, tie them around our waists, crank up the satellite radio and dance.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.