I’m the Principal and I Broke the Dress Code. Permanently.
“You are safe. You are seen. You are celebrated.”
Something the author Toni Morrison said in an interview in the 90’s has stuck with me.
“When a kid walks in the door, does your face light up? When my kids were little and walked in the room I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers, or if their hair was combed. You think that your love and affection is on display because you’re caring for them, but it’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face, ‘What’s wrong now??’. But if you let your face speak what’s in your heart, then they know their own value.”
It’s something I think about as the mother of fabulously wild little beings who choose to shave one side of their head, or sport a faux hawk with bright green bangs, or, in the case of my youngest, to run around barefoot and windblown in whatever clothes are on top of the pile. I want my face to speak what’s in my heart toward them: love and affection and validation and joy.
I am also the Head of School at September School and I want to extend this same joyful welcome to each and every student who walks through the door. But we have a dress code. We had a dress code, I should say. But now I’m breaking it. And here’s why…
This summer, as my admin assistant prepared the Family and Student Handbook for the 2017–18 school year, I reviewed each section to see if any required update or clarification. I glanced at the Dress Code section and approved it for inclusion in this year’s handbook.
Although we support students who wish to express themselves through their attire, clothing and personal accessories deemed inappropriate, offensive, or distracting to the educational process for any reason must be changed or the student may be asked to leave campus. Inappropriate attire includes the following:
Excessively revealing clothing as determined by the administration and/or teachers
Clothing that carries logos, wording, or artwork that depicts or supports the use/abuse of drugs and alcohol, and associated paraphernalia
Clothing that carries slogans or wording that are intended to offend specific groups of people as it applies to their race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or gender.
While I didn’t write it, this is my second year as Head of School and this is the policy I signed off on. So I take full responsibility for what it says. And I find that it says more about who we are as a school than it does about choices that young people make regarding their clothing. I’m not okay with the message it sends our students. It turns out, neither are they.
I held a lunch meeting to discuss the dress code with a group of young women who are students at September School. I shared my perspective, as a 47 year old feminist,on why I choose to dress the way I do for school, and they listened. Then it was their turn.
They shared how it feels to be “dress coded” for wearing shorts or tank tops. One girl told us she had been asked to wear a different bra because her body was distracting to the class. Every girl in the room had a story to share about how they had been singled out, embarrassed, made to feel ashamed of their bodies and removed from class. Most of the time by a male teacher. I asked if they had seen boys “dress coded”. Only for shirts that broke the no drug reference rule.
That meeting was two weeks ago and my response has been brewing in my mind. In between meetings. During my commute. I knew what I wanted to say about the rules and about your clothes, but I couldn’t quite put into words what I wanted to say about each and every one of you. Until Toni Morrison’s word came back to mind. Until now.
Dear September School Students,
First let me start with I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I held power over your bodies while you were in school, over your choices in clothing, over your God given right to self expression. I’m sorry that there was an actual sentence in our handbook that started with the phrase, “Although we support students who wish to express themselves…”. That phrase is a load of crap (which you guys are really adept at picking up on. Sorry I’m late to the party on this one.). I’m sorry for every teacher that made you feel ashamed of your body or your clothes or your gender. To the girls: I’m sorry I valued my version of feminist principles more than I valued you, my actual female students. I’m sorry that this code made us, as educators, look too lazy to have the conversation about the objectification of women in our world and instead silenced you by cautioning you to “not be a distraction”. To the boys: I’m sorry this code made you out as weak minded animals unable to learn while there are breasts in the room.
This is what I want you to know about your bodies here at September School. You are safe. You are seen. You are celebrated. Every inch of you. Every one of you. And more important than what you wear on your body when you come to school, we welcome all the parts of you your body carries here. Your thoughts. Your opinions. Your feelings, joy and pain. Your quirks and anxieties and uncertainties. I trust you to uphold the Community Agreement you signed regarding substances and abuse. I trust you to choose what to wear.
This is the affirmation and validation that is in my heart for you. I hope you see it in my face when you walk through the door of our school. Consider the dress code broken. Permanently.
Kelly Molinet is the Head of School and Executive Director at September School. Kelly earned a BFA in Art History and Music from Syracuse University. She began a lifelong career in education working with urban youth at the Rescue Mission.