When I first read about the experiment of public school pupils wearing uniforms to class, I thought: "That sounds like a pretty good idea."
What could be wrong about a grass-roots project aimed at dampening the seething social pressure among overly clothes-conscious youngsters and reducing clothing costs for parents?
But as I talked recently with the latest convert to the budding religion of "public school students into uniform," I began having a couple of philosophical concerns.
According to school board member Linda Cropp, the D.C. school administration should explore the feasibility of instituting a dress code for all D.C. students, just as several schools in this region already have on an experimental basis.
"In talking to constituents," Cropp said, "many parents and even people who are not parents feel as if students are putting too much into name-brand clothes, paying an awful lot of money, and don't want to go to school if they don't have appropriate clothing.
"The majority of people, everywhere I go, seem to favor a dress code, even wearing a uniform. The item seems to attract more discussion than anything else."
But I also find myself wondering if it is another Band-Aid solution for some parents' malignant failure to instill in their kids the notion that the content of their character is more important than the color of their Reeboks. Listening to her, I wondered if it clearly would not be better if parents simply refused to yield to their children's demands for $130 sweaters and $75 sneakers.
I called Walter Henry, principal of Burrville Elementary School in far Northeast Washington, the only District school that has thus far tried the experiment. Since September, his pupils have come to class dressed in uniforms of blue or gray jumpers, skirts and blouses for the girls and blue dress shirts and dark blue ties for the boys.
"It's working beautifully," Henry said. "We have always had good test scores, but I thought they never really reflected everything -- including manners. We wanted to get our children back to feeling good about themselves.
"I tell them, when you get up in the morning, you're getting dressed to go to work. We want you to feel good about yourself when you put on your uniform and after that you're ready to start the day's work at school."
As he talked, my philosophical doubts began yielding to practical realities. Since many District parents are of low or moderate income (an estimated 70 percent of the students are eligible for free lunches), many families clearly can't afford to dress their children in clothes their peers would expect them to wear. As a result, some youngsters don't want to go to school.
Furthermore, with increasing numbers of mothers working, many young and single and others under too much stress to have time for proper character development of their children, many youngsters are being exposed to the wrong values from television, movies and dubious role models. But could uniforms actually change behavior? "I have seen a difference," Henry said. "We have fewer fights now. Parents say it's helping their children restore their values."
From a cultural perspective, clothes have traditionally played an important role for blacks. "Clothes give us a way to deny the generally low status we have traditionally had in the American society," said anthropologist Signithia Fordham. "Clothes help us minimize the stigma of being black and poor; they suggest, 'I may be poor but I look good,' and are a symbol to suggest we are not what the society says we are."
Fordham's words are a reminder of the complexity of this issue. I would hate to see a trend toward sameness in dress that could be translated into a sameness in thought, a trend toward toeing the line when it comes to individuality of expression and point of view.
While I would speculate that the advantage of uniforms for kids makes it worth giving them a trial run in a few elementary schools in the city, I think we should go into the experiment with our eyes wide open, recognizing that it is not a cure-all, but perhaps one more temporary measure to try to deal with the complexity of life in the '80s.