Easy and Elegant Life

The Search for Everyday Elegance and the Art of Living Well.

Back to School

Dead Poets
I’m tagging this under “cultivating” because I’m back at school, cultivating a little esoteric knowledge. Which is strange seeming after an absence of 20 years. Actually more than that if you consider that I’ve gone back to high school.

The erudite Mrs. E. is a teacher at a very good local prep school. When they talk of the school “family,” they mean it. Not only am I able to eat at the very good cafeteria, but I’ve been allowed to audit an art history class!

I managed to miss art history during my (now all-too-brief-seeming) education. But it sounded like something I’d enjoy. And, of course, it bumps up against my desire to explore the finer points of living. I harbour a secret desire to work at Christie’s as some sort of expert. (“Ah yes, the Prohibition ‘Error’ cocktail glass…”) Art history would seem to be a prerequisite. It certainly should be for the study of the art of living well. My prof is living proof. She is very well travelled and a former museum docent. A real lady of the old school. Her lifestyle seems in short supply these days…

But this isn’t about my class (I’ve got a lot to learn and my brain is a bit rusty…), or my age, or even my prof. This is about the changes in prep school life as I knew it then and as I am experiencing it now..

Yup, I’m a product of a boy’s college preparatory school — one that has since joined with our sister school. Back when I attended, the dress code was strictly in effect. Coat and tie, no sneakers except at athletics, no jeans, socks mandatory, clean shaven and hair above the collar. Yes, I admit to pushing the envelope (it was the 80’s…..), but I pretty much toed the line, even if my ties were skinny or leopard print on occasion.

Today’s student at a school that is passably similar to my own is more…liberated. Shorts, Converse Chucks, polo shirts and shorts are all acceptable wear for most of the week. I understand that t-shirts with the school’s logo are, too. At least to some degree.

I wonder, does the relaxed dress code make learning a less serious business? Weirdly, or maybe not, casual clothes remind me of casual pursuits. Yet, my classmates are engaged during the lectures and are pretty well prepared for class. Maybe it just looks less rigorous? It just seems weird to me. And yes, I wear a coat and tie to class (like the male teachers.) But I’m 41; older than some of the teachers, but certainly no more professional.

Then, as now, when I’m dressed, I feel more … aware? Not exactly…. Serious? Sort of. Professional? Yes, in a way. What is it that I’m trying to express? I feel more ready to face the day. More grown up. That’ll have to do. Grown up.

But today most men subscribe to the tyranny of the polo shirt and khakis uniform. And that must impact the way that their children see themselves as pledges to the adult fraternity.

We were “young men” in class, steeped in the traditions of the honor code, the importance of religion, the necessity of a well-rounded education, respect for our teachers and the institution (not to mention, how to tie a bowtie.) We were brought up with the inevitablity of taking our place as members of society at large. After our college years, of course. Which prepared us for the working world. The dress code set us apart from our public school peers and was intended to mirror the seriousness with which we approached our studies and related to our teachers and colleagues.

None of that seems to have changed too much. Now these kids are put into groups in Lower School — on teams named after famous generals. Like Harry Potter’s houses, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, etc., the two teams form part of your identity inside the school. Your team becomes a kind of code — shorthand among insiders and alumni– for some of your rituals. Your affliation will become a source of good natured ribbing in the Upper School.

The idea of the teams got me thinking today. With no real dress code, why do all schools persist in supplying sports teams with uniforms? Excepting the case of protective gear, why not do away with anything but school colors to distinguish one team from another? The uniforms can’t affect performance that much, can they?

Or does it have to do with team spirit? Pride? And doesn’t the school dress code do the same thing?

“Good morning, Gentlemen.”

“Good morning Mr.______”

“Today we begin with the Enlightenment. History’s and yours….”

It all seems kind of storybook today. Or like a movie. The dress code…. The serious business of learning…. The “otherness” of adolescence. Pride of place. Maybe it’s all outdated. I’d like to see the “stricter” dress code return by the time my son applies. It makes for memorable moments. And a neatly tied bowtie.

2 thoughts on “Back to School

  1. I know that this is a very old post (I’ve been reading your blog for about a year and decided to go back and read everything from the beginning)–and I’m not even sure if you go back and get old comments–but I had to respond to this one, just in case you do.

    I teach in a public high school and a constant topic of conversation at the Department Head meetings is dress code. I am for a more stringent dress code, but have always had a hard time forming my arguments in a way that didn’t make me sound like an old fart (I’m only 33 for crying out loud!).

    But your argument about the team uniforms is truly inspired! Thanks for this great post. I’m ready for the next time this debate comes up.

  2. Hello Eric,
    Thanks! Keep fighting the good fight. Dress codes don’t have to involve uniforms, but a higher standard is nice. Collared shirts is the way to start. No jeans is the next hurdle. I doubt things will change though, as long as dress codes are seen as “elitist” and clothing unaffordable for all (silly in these days of $100 + jeans and sneakers.)

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