As students head back to school, teachers can find themselves face to face with teenagers clinging to their summer styles. Commentator Annmarie Kelly Harbaugh knows — thanks to an experience with a student a few years ago — that the boundary between what is and is not appropriate school clothing can be a bit blurry.
Rochelle* was late. She wobbled down the hall, saying: "It's not me, it's my shoes."
I could see how 3-inch heels might slow a person down. But the rest of Rochelle's outfit — a glittered belt buckle, black miniskirt and a clingy purple tee — well, that could only be described as fast.
We did have a dress code: no tube tops, underwear on the inside, that sort of thing. But we struggled to enforce it. One teacher put it this way: "I'm a middle-aged man. I'm just not comfortable talking to a teenage girl about her body."
Hearing this, a few of us female teachers decided to take the lead.
School was no place to be sexy. We would simply ask students to change their clothes. As a deterrent, we put bins in our classrooms — full of 1980s sweaters and capes from Shakespeare skits. If necessary, students could pull out garments to cover halter tops or peeping thongs.
I even rehearsed speeches for that first day: "Before school, you have one chance to cover your body. If you miss, then it's my turn."
So Rochelle could not sit in third period English looking like Tina Turner. We spoke in the hallway. "Hon, you are a lovely girl, but that skirt's too short for school."
"None of my other teachers had a problem with it." I considered this and explained that we were tightening rules this year, and people were still learning the policy.
Reluctantly, Rochelle went off to change, and I claimed victory.
It was a strange year, though. Rochelle's skirts disappeared, then reappeared. Sometimes, in solidarity, her friends wore them, too. We dug into the costume box often. Clothing begot other battles. I kept Rochelle after class to conference about disrespect or her low grades. We just never connected.
On day one, I had chosen her wardrobe as the most important thing about her. I don't think she ever forgave that judgment. The skirt could have been from her favorite aunt. Maybe Rochelle had gained weight and was self-conscious about its snugness. Or maybe Rochelle was just another teenage girl experimenting with an adult body. I remember that excitement. Curves were cool. But they encouraged me to walk down paths where my footing was uncertain. It would have been nice to have had an adult — an English teacher, maybe — who I could talk to about that.
I care about the images my students project, but I care even more about the reasons they are projecting them. When I tell a young woman her clothes are inappropriate, she hears she is inappropriate. That's no way to start a school year or a relationship.
These days, I save the garment box for Shakespeare skits. I can instill pride in my students, without first resorting to shame.
I have Rochelle to thank for teaching me that.
Annmarie Kelly Harbaugh teaches English at James Hillhouse High School, in New Haven, Conn.
* The name of the student has been changed — to protect the teen's privacy.