Tag Archives: elementary school

Uniforms, Poverty, and Inspiration

29 Jan

In the 8th grade, I was about 13 or 14, I was elected student body president. My teacher, Ms. Kane, was very passionate and talented at instilling patriotic ideals and an appreciation for the little we possessed as well as reminded us of the world that lay at our doorstep.

Her mother was a Holocaust survivor; a slowly fading tattoo of her serial number that was her only identity during the war, still marked her for what she had lived through. When they came to America, they were dirt poor, completely displaced from their home, their bearings still rattled by one of the most grotesque series of events in human history.

Someone was being immature in class and teasing another student about what they were wearing. Ms. Kane became another person. Always on task, she became impassioned and emotional as she described how she only had one black skirt and a white long sleeved collar shirt that she wore to school every day. This was her uniform. But problem was she was the only one wearing it at school. It was her only outfit. As she described how she would be so very careful not to soil her outfit for the next day and how she would fanatically wash it every third day, I fought to check my tears. A few students looked to me to see whether they should laugh and teaser her too and I scowled at them, trying my best to look hard (as hard as I could now look as a student body council prez) and communicate it was best to just stay mum.

Ms. Kane’s story hit a chord with me then, it made this Jewish woman much more relatable to me, a Mexican-American teenager whose only exposure to white people were through a handful of teachers. It also reminded me how important it was that we had uniforms.

You remember how you used to detest wearing school uniforms? Those awful, often scratchy, completely unflattering plaid or horrid solid jumpers and skirts (that I am sure manufacturers dye just to embarrass legions of youth every year), you remember right? Or as my fellow Latinos and/or George Lopez fans would say, “You member right? You member!”

I remember them too. The deep evergreen jumper that I owned when I was in elementary school where some genius decided to send home flyers advising parents that they would be implementing a uniform policy and the colors parents should purchase for their children. All the while in small print it mentioned that this would be a voluntary measure and no one would be forced to purchase or wear these uniforms.

The first day of school I arrived in my jumper, one of two that I owned, and found myself the only one in said jumper in my class. It was quickly pointed out to me by other students in the school yard that I was the only kid that they could see that was wearing the uniform. Well apparently they had not caught sight of my sister.

Every day I walked to school knowing I would be ridiculed, that I would be bullied by the older kids, taunted for being poor and only having the one outfit. I became highly skilled at using words to make those bullies feel stupid but I still walked away feeling wounded, feeling small, feeling inadequate.

I am a PTA member at my daughters’ school, I became the Fundraiser Chair this year, and one of my highest priorities was enacting a school uniform policy. There were complains about the lack of self-expression, about forcing parents to purchase these uniforms, as well as supporting arguments that it would be good for the sixth grade students to have their wardrobe choices checked with the new guidelines. The usual supporting arguments of it lowering the gang and/or explicit music affiliation were mentioned and it became a back and forth stalemate.

I got up and said, “I’m a single parent. I would have no problem making the initial investment of purchasing uniforms for my children since the benefits of not worrying about them being up to the latest fashions, reducing the time of getting ready in the morning, and quite frankly it is much more affordable than buying them several different outfits throughout the year.” Another parent piped up and brilliantly mentioned that we could fundraise for those unable to purchase the uniforms and we could hold an exchange of uniforms amongst parents as children outgrew their uniforms. We pushed and went through the motions and months later my kids are happily wearing uniforms.

It’s not just about leveling the field in the shallow self-expression through clothing amongst children, it’s about leveling the field of the haves and have not’s and instilling a sense of inclusion at a young age for our next generations.

I went to Washington D.C. with Ms. Kane that year and we wore our uniforms all week. We groaned, hollered, and dragged our feet but when we got there we frequently received compliments from elderly white women (again pardon my then limited interaction outside my East LA school neighborhood) about how polished and classy we looked compared to the scantily dressed youth of nowadays. We spend many lunches having a conversation with strangers about where we were from, where they were from, it was almost as if we forgot if we were white or not, we were just human.

So remember, even as awful as these uniforms may seem, they make everyone seem human and approachable, at least a little bit more so, at least as approachable as LA people can be…

-Susana Benavidez
Native Angeleno (so don’t rag on me for talking smack about LA ;) )

Culmination and a new dress??

10 Nov

I was so excited; I would be able to wear a brand new dress for my 5th grade culmination. That’s what they called it a culmination not graduation. It did not matter, I was going to speak since I was being awarded the Vice-Principal’s award and my mom surprised me by saying we were going shopping for a dress.

“We’re leaving in an hour; make sure your room, the bathroom, and kitchen is clean before we leave.” I ran to my room and made sure everything was in place and changed out of my uniform into a pair of white jeans and t-shirt. I washed the dishes and ran around in a whirlwind of excited energy as I imagined what I would get to wear.

Maybe I would find a fancy black dress, simple and fitting so that I looked elegant giving my speech. I could squeeze into my sister’s heels and I would look great! Marla and Kandy would look at me with approval and I would smile slightly as if to show I always dressed that way outside of school…

I heard the engine running and my mom call out, “if you’re not out here in five minutes I’m leaving.” I had to pee but I ignored the urge and dashed out the door and onto the car and we sped away in our white 1984 Jimmy GM. I liked that car, with its red interior, brandishing the same year I was born. My sis and I worked hard to keep it clean both inside and out so that it looked almost new.

We went down Brooklyn Ave (now Cesar Chavez) and stopped at the BofA on Breed St. The line stretched out the door and there was no bathroom in sight. When we finally left and crossed the street to the fashion store I thought I would die and pee my pants. My mother kept passing me ugly dresses to try on that were too big on me but she figured they would last long.

As I was taking off a gray and black jumper that I hated, I felt the painful urge to pee. As my mother kept yelling at me in front of the other customers and the excitement of the new dress long ago dead, I felt a river of urine flow from my legs and over my white jeans and dress. I couldn’t believe it! I stared down in horror as hot tears streamed down my cheeks. I managed to whimper what had happened and I could see that the Japanese store owner felt bad that he hadn’t allowed me to use his bathroom. My mother yelled at me and slapped me hard complaining that she would have to buy the dress now and a slew of insults flew out of her mouth as she pushed me out the door and told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to ride home in the car. “Vete caminando! Haber si la verguenza te quita lo pendejo!”

I tried not to cry and wiped away the tears. As I waited for the light to turn green a woman, a Jehovah’s Witness, placed her hand on my arm and asked if I was okay. I was horrified that anyone would notice the yellow stains on my already tattered jeans and I shook my head and ran off as the cars came to a stop. I walked home in the dark and hated myself for being so stupid, so ugly, and worthless. How could I have done such a thing? I was ten years old and I had piss all over my jeans – making me shiver in the cold. I ran past the veteranos on Breed St, turned the corner on Malabar and ignored the catcalls of the fat old men trying to give me a ride. I contemplated not going back home and walking until my legs buckled under me and my heart gave out and my body could finally lie down in peace forever.

As my self-tormenting and wishful thinking came to an end I was back on Forest Ave walking down to the peach stucco house with my father’s figure leaning on the chain link gate. As I walked closer he opened the door and looked at me with sadness in his eyes; I could feel the tears edging on my eyes and the ball of emotion rising in my throat but I looked away and went to shower. By the time I got out everyone had gone to bed and I gingerly took my dress out of the plastic bag and washed it by hand and laid it out to dry. At least some stains come off with a little soap and water.

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