The atmosphere crackled with the noise and excited chatter of around 50 students who had just entered our narrow rectangular classroom after the lunch break. Like any other day, this was the setting of my fifth period AP U.S. History class this afternoon. The bell rang, signaling the beginning of class, and our conversations dwindled down when our teacher stated that our assistant principal had an important announcement, turning our attention to the front of the classroom. Our assistant principal stood before us, holding a thin sheet of paper. From my seat in the second row, I could see the school district logo in the header and small lines of print underneath. A humorous person, he cracked a couple jokes to lighten the mood, but I noticed the atmosphere in the room growing heavier as he cleared his throat and began to read off the page.
With a serious tone, he explained the persisting issue of bullying at our school and the proposed new legislation by the district board to curb it. Our unsuspecting curiosity soon turned into one of shock (and horror for some) when the words “school uniforms” were uttered. The assistant principal continued to describe what the new dress code would be if the regulation was enacted, and I could hear the beginning murmurs of protest and incredulity at the thought of having to be dressed in the same clothes as everyone else. Not only that, but collared shirts adorned with our school logo Monday through Thursday, with ‘casual Friday’ meaning we would have to wear our bright red school t-shirts with our mascot plastered on the front. I wasn’t too riled up at first, wary of the reactions that would soon lead to complete chaos in the room. Besides, wearing my hair in a ponytail as the new requirement would require didn’t interfere with my usual hairdo, but I did believe that restriction seemed far too stringent and unnecessary. I didn’t have to look around to know what every single student in the class was thinking: This was a breach of freedom of expression.
Although the claimed reason behind the new proposal was to lessen bullying and theft associated with materialistic items, we obviously did not think implementing school uniforms was the way to go. Surely there were other ways to prevent such atrocities that did NOT interfere with our personal preference for style. After our assistant principal finished reading the letter, stating that our class was a focus group whose feedback would be considered before the district board made the ultimate decision, a heated discussion ensued.
As a class, we’re generally pretty involved in discussions, but it’s rare to see a response as fervent as this. It seemed like half the class was raising their hands, calling out in protest at the new and preposterous rule. The assistant called on one student after another, and each made a statement on his or her opinion or proposed a question regarding the issue at hand. As is my usual nature, I observed and listened, though I was itching to participate in this particular debate too. Although fashion wasn’t as important to me as some of the others in the class, I wasn’t one to let an injustice pass by.
The clamor increased and some very interesting points were made, including the observation that bullying is not usually based on the attire the victim wears, how creating a community within the school requires acceptance of diversity, and the echoed outcry that our own personal style is a fundamental part of who we are. Scatters of applause and voices of approval were awarded generously. Even the assistant principal agreed with the majority of our statements, and the only person who seemed lenient toward the idea of uniforms was our teacher, who stated that we would be able to proudly display our identity as a student at our high school with uniforms and that many employers required their workers to don the same attire to show they were part of a cohesive team. Needless to say, we continued to retaliate with fervent refusal to be subject to a treachery as horrifying as wearing school uniforms.
In short, our class had, in less than ten minutes, become a united group against the restriction of individualism. It was at this time that the assistant principal called for us to quiet down and relax. Then he broke the news that none of what he had said was true. Confused at first and on the verge of another outburst, we turned to our teacher, all eyes on him as he told us that we were in fact not part of a ‘focus group’ but had just experienced a small fraction of what the Native Americans had to go through less than 150 years ago.
On the screen in front of us, he presented us with pairs of photos, each showing a Native American in his or her cultural outfit, and alongside it, another photo depicting the drastic change that occurred after being forced to become ‘white’. Instead of the traditional feathers, beads, and geometric patterns on their ponchos, in the second photo, they had changed into tight-fitting button down shirts and pleated pants. Their long locks of hair were chopped to above their ears, even the females. And all of them appeared almost exactly the same. Even more appalling, these drastic changes didn’t just apply to attire. By now, our heated emotions had sunk into one of understanding and appreciation. If we had been so caught up about clothes and hairstyles (which now seemed incredibly insignificant), how had the Native Americans felt when they were forced to abandon their culture completely for a new lifestyle that was strange, foreign, and against their ancestral ideals?
Today in my AP U.S. History class, besides realizing how awesome a contestant our teacher would be on Punk’d, I learned two things of great importance – one: being able to emphasize with people who lived in the past helps us gain a better and more memorable understanding of history, and two: individualism and freedom of expression are essential aspects of any society.