Originally published on Open Salon on April 9, 2011:
Recently, I have given a great deal of thought to a particular tendency in our culture that has powerful implications, not only for my work as a teacher, but also for society as a whole. A personal anecdote serves as an introduction.
For about twenty years now, I have insisted on wearing a jacket and tie to school every day. Some days I even wear a suit. For a long time, I was never entirely sure why I dressed up. Some older colleagues ribbed me a little at first, calling me an ambitious rookie and saying it would wear off in a year or two. Others commented that I looked very professional, and that it was good to use my clothes to separate myself somewhat from my students, especially seeing as I looked so young that I could pass for a high school student myself. Still others would offer suggestions to “loosen up” or make myself “comfortable.”
Ironically, my clothes were extremely comfortable. Worsted wool trousers are more comfortable than even sweatpants. A neatly-pressed cotton shirt (without starch) is like a pajama shirt, especially if the collar fits properly. Wearing a tie for some bizarre reason seemed to provoke the most conversation about discomfort. I could never figure that one out. All ties do is hang there. As for a blazer or suit jacket, they usually have five pockets—ideal for carrying pens, hall passes, disciplinary referral forms, chalk, and other paraphernalia related to my work.
But for all of this, there was no conscious rationale involved in the way I dressed. And this was not a continuation of some earlier tendency, either. In college just a few years earlier, I was a lackluster student given my natural abilities. Due to reading difficulties that would not be identified for another decade, I read as quickly and as little as possible. That left me at a disadvantage when it came to writing and discussion—critical elements in classes that English majors take. I was constantly battling feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and my escape became playing drums for a rock band. What’s more, my hair was long, and my playing was loud. Really loud. Some drummers break worn drum heads or crack a stick when they play energetically. I routinely snapped sticks in two and broke cymbals. Suffice it to say, I had a history of appearing to be anything but studious or restrained.
So there I was, in a new stage of life, dressing in a new way and assuming a new set of expectations. Almost miraculously, I steamrolled my reading difficulties and began inhaling volumes of what I should have read years before. I became friends with a learned colleague who urged me to continue my studies. Then, as I was nearing age 30, I abruptly resigned my post. I simply quit. I made a few trips to Europe, I took a year off from teaching, and I moved back to my home state of New Jersey. And when I started teaching again—this time in a Catholic high school—I began to notice something very interesting.
These Catholic school students had to wear uniforms, and they were not happy about it. They would do anything they could to subvert the intended look of their apparel. The girls rolled up their skirts and untucked their shirts. The boys untucked their shirts and drooped their pants. This was nothing strange to me. I had attended Catholic schools when I was young, and I had done similar things. But now I was actually conscious of it all, perhaps seeing things from a different perspective. In a good-natured fashion, I played my role in the game. I started by forcing everyone to adjust their uniforms when they came into my classroom. As that expectation took hold, I started growling that I was tired of having to remind people. Later I would criticize students for not having gotten themselves in order before they arrived. It was only a matter of time before I started saying that if the students could dress properly, they might as well make their written work look acceptable. The reader sees where all of this is going.
I learned two very important things from all of this. First, many people in our society—not merely students—are uncomfortable with convention and formality. This is a social phenomenon that picked up momentum in the 1960s and 1970s when the counterculture rightly questioned injustices in our world, many of which were held up by tradition and the establishment. As our culture changed, the counterculture was co-opted into a new mass-media establishment that segregated society by age and tastes. Youth culture received a consistent and compelling message that music and being cool are far more important than learning, growing, and connecting with people of all ages. For increasing numbers of young people, being conventional or formal came to mean being isolated and alone. I, incidentally, was once one such young person.
The second revelation was that people of all ages respond to and cooperate with someone they trust. I did not know precisely how I had earned the trust of my students. I seldom gave detention, and I never raised my voice, so I don’t buy the idea of my students complying upon compulsion. I concluded that they were moved by my determination, and they grudgingly gave my way a chance.
I have no illusions that these experiences represent some decisive stride to advance education, but all of this is a ridiculously long way of acknowledging some simple realities. Namely, it is healthy to be skeptical of a conventional, received way of doing things. Blind acceptance of society’s ways can diminish our individuality and, as history has proven, even lead to injustice and genocide. On the other hand, however, our current culture illustrates that other sets of conventions can arise: ones that place divisions between young people and adults, favor diversion over fulfillment, and encourage a mass of men and women to let others dictate a worldview for them in three sentences or less.
Today more than ever, our youth are looking for something credible to grab hold of. Adults are uniquely positioned provide it. One day soon, it may be hip to be square.