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An eye toward others

The Golden Rule could resolve debates over student dress codes

An eye toward others

(Krieg Barrie)

My grandmother used to sing to me, “School days, school days, dear old golden rule days. Reading and writing and ’rithmatic, taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick. …”

Life down the rabbit hole has got curiouser and curiouser since that 1907 song about primary school was penned: men with 5-o’clock shadows in pink chiffon and heels; campus radicals for controlled speech rather than free speech; Rhode Island’s 2017 Teacher of the Year (from my hometown of Woonsocket!) strikes a pose as “visibly queer” in his photo with the president in the Oval Office.

Now high schoolers are protesting dress codes barring cleavage as “sexist” and “body-shaming” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 20), at a time when I see at the local Walmart a spike in disaffected inner-city Baptist girls donning full-body niqabs that show only their eyes.

Teachers and principals once held the “hick’ry stick,” but students are now calling the tune. Cowering administrators at a Chester County, Pa., high school promise to “make modifications” to their sartorial demands. Adolescents lecture that dress codes make them “feel bad about themselves”; teach “people that girls’ bodies are something to keep hidden and that it’s scandalous to show too much skin”; “lead toward confidence issues.”

Teachers and principals once held the ‘hick’ry stick,’ but students are now calling the tune.

“Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child” (Ecclesiastes 10:16).

One 17-year-old philosopher named Cassady complains: “Girls are told to change for the comfort of boys. … Boys should be taught to pay attention in class and not gawk.” Here we learn that the boys must be taught but girls are to be left alone to judge timeless moral questions, and that in the matter of male gawking the girls have none of the blame and the boys have all of it: If the boys lust at my bared midriff, it’s their problem, not mine.

But consider the passive-aggressive wardrobe, passive-aggressiveness being the art of acting for the express purpose of causing a certain effect on someone—and then having a grievance when the effect is successfully produced. Brilliant.

For instance, you sit by and watch your father struggle with a pickle jar lid (which you could easily loosen) because you are still miffed at him for a remark he made earlier in the afternoon. You have not done anything anyone can finger as wrong. What splendid treachery!

So the schoolgirl goes to her closet after her Pop-Tarts breakfast and picks out an outfit that is calculated to make boys salivate. Then she goes to school and the boys salivate. She has the best of both outcomes: She gets to advertise her wares and then withhold them from prospective buyers. If her male counterpart takes the bait, she gets to protest her innocence: “I merely wore a nice dress to school, and that stupid sexist boy and those stupid school administrators body-shamed me and damaged my self-esteem!”

Do they still read Great Expectations in freshman year, or are the classics done away with too? Too bad, because it’s all in there: Estella tormenting Pip with forbidden fruit, yet so prettily. The prototype man-hating feminist Ms. Havisham, arranger of those playdates, sadistically watching the scene.

But the golden rule, if they had retained it in the schools, would have cut through all that nonsense about girls’ rights to wear whatever clothes they please. It pierces deeper than the letter of the law, straight to the motives of the heart: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them ” (Matthew 7:12).

To live the golden rule demands a modicum of introspection that is not exacted by a mere school policy. It may not be immediately apparent to you till you put yourself in your classmate’s shoes that what you wear can harm his soul. We sin against our brother when our choices make him stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13). We sin against him when we have within our power to do him good or harm, and we choose harm: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him” (Exodus 23:4).

Jesus said: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come” (Luke 17:1).

The rule, it seems to me, is elementary.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 07/13/2017 06:33 pm

    I used to believe that dress codes are ridiculous.  I have come to realize that they benefit students in different ways.  It virtually eliminates wardrobe competition and ridicule, contributes to a sense of team pride, and teaches a sense of humility and respect.  It ultimately enables students to focus on their education.

    Posted: Wed, 08/02/2017 05:26 pm


    Just a note to add my “Amen” to your essay, “An Eye Toward Others.” You hit the problem that public schools have increasingly been facing for years. Students long ago figured out that teachers (and administrators) have little to no control over their students' behavior and speech. As a retired public school teacher, I and my co-workers witnessed the emerging trend decades ago. Your biblical references, current example and the tie-in with "Great Expectations” were all very appropriate. Keep up the good work.

    Timothy L