We all have an image in our mind of catholic school uniforms. Plaid skirts, collared shirts, and polyester sweaters are top of mind for me. I wore a uniform every year from K-12. There were variations as we aged through the system; chunky black shoes in favor of saddle shoes, skirts in favor of jumper dresses. Each year as the summer would wind down, school shopping consisted of looking through the uniform provider's catalog and filling out an order form. We were afforded the most minuscule of choices. You could choose between a skirt with pleats all the way around or a flat-front wrap-around pleated kilt. You could choose between a white or a urine colored dress shirt.
While girls technically had the option to wear pants or skirts, it wasn't really much of an option at all. The girls' trousers were somehow much worse than the boys' version. Front pleat with enough room to hide a full-term pregnancy below the belt loops. Immediate social demise if you wore those to school. I convinced my mom to buy me a pair of stretchy navy bell bottoms from Limited Too and tried unsuccessfully to pass them off as regulation. It did not fly. The uniform police was always out in full force. Their number one priority was the length of girls' skirts. Knee-length was the rule. No shorter than the tips of the fingers when the arms were relaxed by one's side.
Maybe it would not have been such a problem if the default skirt size from the uniform provider wasn't ankle length. Maybe there were some tall American girls in some catholic school somewhere that would fit in these skirts, but our school full of short Portuguese girls were drowning in material. Our moms could have made two skirts out of every one we purchased. The number one way that girls fixed this problem was by rolling the skirt up at the waist to shorten it to a manageable length. This was an OK solution but made things kind of bulgy around your mid-section. It was also easy to get in trouble this way whenever teachers decided to do an impromptu uniform check. They would spontaneously ask all of the girls to go line up in the hallway and would make them lift their shirts one by one to show the top of their skirts. Anyone whose skirt was found to be rolled was scolded and had to immediately unroll.
Fortunately for me, my mom was on my side and decided to fix the problem by cutting and hemming the skirt to the exact length I wanted. No rolling necessary! I went into each unannounced uniform check with the confidence that they surely weren't going to tell my mom that she had hemmed it too short. And I was right. But the fact that I was wearing a skirt at all in the dead of winter was reason to believe that I had won the battle but not the war. The pants were so hideous that I would rather freeze my bare ass in sub-zero temperatures than be caught wearing them. Nylons barely helped the cause and I lived in a constant state of chicken skin. It was often so cold that my leg hair would emerge immediately despite a fresh shave.
Good thing we had those nice warm sweaters. Good thing. In elementary and middle school we would wear the sweaters on even the hottest days of the year. It was necessary to cover your body since the girls' dress shirts were made of single ply toilet paper. Funny how the boys got triple ply. Our shirts were so translucent that no girl felt comfortable removing their sweater. We would rather roast alive than be so bare. Our computer teacher must have been menopausal at the time because she would beg us to remove our sweaters. "It's 90 degrees!" she would plead. Occasionally she would wear us down and we would remove our sweaters to reveal a sopping sweat-stained shirt.
In high school, the opposite occurred. The school forced mandatory date-certain sweater wearing. If they selected October 15th as the start of sweater season, it didn't matter if your metabolic rate kept you running warm -- you had to wear the damn thing. One year, as a matter of principle, the majority of our class decided to jointly protest warm-weather sweater wearing by simply *not wearing* them. "They can't punish us all," we thought. An announcement came over the PA system on the day we were all supposed to don our sweaters: "All students without a sweater are to report to the library immediately". At least a hundred students poured into the halls and filled the library where the dean of students was waiting with a stack of detention slips. He passed them around the room and made us fill out our own detention slips.
I took my detention and figured that was as good a reason as any to continue to not wear the sweater since I'd already done the time for the crime. Eventually when I got cold enough I wore a red hooded sweatshirt to blend in with the sea of red sweaters. Most people left me alone. Except one pesky teacher who made it a point to scurry over to me during homeroom one day and lean in to whisper in my ear. He began singing the lyrics to Roses by OutKast:
"… I know you'd like to think your shit don't stank,
but lean a little bit closer, see
Roses really smell like poo-poo-ooh
Yeah, roses really smell like poo-poo-ooh…"
That was his idiosyncratic way of telling me that I needed to wear my sweater. I somehow survived the rest of my catholic school sentence and eventually graduated high school. The first thing on the list post-graduation? A group polyester-sweater-burning bonfire session. The sweaters didn't burn as much as melt but it was therapeutic all the same...
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