It’s time for my annual back-to-school fashion makeover.
When I was a kid, the last weeks leading up to the new school term at Mt. Carmel School were filled with equal parts excitement and dread. I was always highly pumped at the prospect of starting a new grade, being older, and the learning of new subjects. I very much looked forward to seeing my classmates and trading stories about our summertime shenanigans. Really, I couldn’t wait.
The part that I was not keen about was, if you can believe it, the new clothes. To be clear, this had more to do with a tropical climate and limited air conditioning than the actual clothes themselves. But consider this: When a sharp tag sewn into the back of a new T-shirt pokes you as sweat rolls down your back – ugh, talk about anxiety.
And if the raw spot from the tag isn’t bad enough, imagine that the perspiration rolling down your neck and back, on your belly and bum, is never really absorbed by new underwear. Instead, it sheets out so that your skin turns into a membrane as slick and wet as a dolphin leaping out of the water. But, unlike the dolphin, who is as free as the wind in cool water, you are trapped under two layers of suffocating garments - the unabsorbent cotton under a mostly polyester Catholic school uniform.
I repeat, ugh.
And that’s just the clothes. In the 1970s, if you were a boy in my family, you lined up so your dad could rub a thick dab of floral smelling pomade into your head in order that your hair would shine, your curls would be tamed, and the part he carved into your scalp would last the entire day. In the heat, your oiled crown cried petroleum jelly tears that rolled down your face. One shined, literally, in misery.
It really wasn’t until high school in the 80s when it became acceptable to not wear a T-shirt under your white school shirt. By then, uniform retailers began stocking mostly cotton blends and, let’s face it, once Madonna started rolling around in a wedding dress to “Like a Virgin,” all Catholic dress codes were irreversibly off.
When I went to college, buying new clothes wasn’t limited to starting a new school year, and I was significantly more comfortable in my wardrobe. Again, this had less to do with the clothes than the Chicago weather. Winter, spring and fall are wonderful months to wear clothes, which, as I remember them, were not particularly comfortable. Legs were tight, wool was scratchy, and Lycra had not yet been introduced into denim jeans. Still, the cooler climes made dressing fun.
When I became a teacher, the back-to-school ritual shopping returned. Teacher fashion became personally important because, quite frankly, I was kind of shocked at how badly public school teachers – especially male teachers – turned themselves out. I have witnessed faculty colleagues show up to inspire students in faded shorts and logo tees, wrinkled shirts and stained khakis, and badly tied Windsor knots. Not that I think teachers should have a uniform, per se, but I do believe that they should dress in a way that enhances how their young students perceive them.
Now I know that teaching is challenging but, I’m sorry, showing up to teach in a hoodie is not trying hard enough. Fleece has its place, and it should not be upon the backs of an educator during school hours. Cotton jersey is undershirt material – it doesn’t matter if it’s made into a dress or a long-sleeved shirt – it still reads “weekend.” Jeans are fine, but the versions with rips and frayed holes are for kids. In fact, if you do wear jeans, up the game and wear a proper jacket with it so that you maintain some level of professionalism in your look.
Ladies, this is for you: If your blouse or dress is sleeveless, throw on a cardigan. Students should never be exposed to an instructor’s armpits. I don’t care if it is 98 degrees, flashing your armpit fat is giving your students another reason to mock you.
Personally, I’m at the age where my current fashion mantra is ‘If it doesn’t blow like a flag in the wind, then I’m not wearing it.” In other words, I’ve got to be extremely comfortable, and garments need to be roomy enough for the movement the job requires. Within these constraints, there are many options. This year for me, it's nice loose-fitting linen dress shirts under vintage denim jackets, with a colorful tie every now and then, perhaps a scholarly scarf when the weather changes.
Oh, yes, and elastic waistbands on proper slacks. No two ideas are better matched than these for this returning teacher. My students will never see me sweat.
Dan Ho, a native of Agat, is a writer and teacher and holds a Ph.D. in indigenous studies. Follow his garden adventures on Instagram @HoandGarden.