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Uniform power

The recent announcement that uniforms are now optional among public school students brings back memories of my youth.

I attended Jose Abad Santos Memorial School (JASMS) in Quezon City from first grade in 1988, until high school in 1999. In elementary school, we wore uniforms—a white short-sleeved polo shirt with a maroon collar for boys, and a white dress with a maroon tie for the girls. During Physical Education classes, we all wore a collarless white t-shirt with the JASMS logo matched with maroon PE shorts or jogging pants.

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In high school, we did away with uniforms, which made things a lot easier. Or did it?

Giving room for “creative expression,” which is one of its ideals, JASMS allowed high school students then to come in civilian clothes, expecting us to also observe its other dictum of “freedom with responsibility.” Meaning, we could wear what we wanted as long as it looked decent.

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While many of my schoolmates—to my eyes—looked so cool, hip, and confident as they donned apparel from Nike, Adidas, Guess, Benetton, Lacoste, Paul Smith, Doc Martens, Tommy Hilfiger, etc., I started to feel a bit insecure for not wearing clothes from these popular brands. In this regard, I felt I entered high school unprepared, having been unconcerned about clothes during my first seven years as a snot-nosed elementary student preoccupied mostly with kiddie stuff.

My idea of “peer pressure” back then was limited to stereotypical images of young people getting influenced to smoke and drink, do drugs, engage in risqué behavior, and cut classes regularly, mainly for the heck of it. As I did not do any of those things (except for cutting classes a few times), I thought I did not go through peer pressure at all. I was in my mid-20s when I belatedly realized that my version of it was my very yearning to wear the same branded clothes as my high school peers… like keeping up with the Jasmites.

During my sophomore year in 1996, many kids in school were wearing those navy blue Polo (by Ralph Lauren) canvas sneakers. I forgot exactly what I told my parents, but my mom was prevailed upon to take me after school to the Greenhills Shopping Center in Ortigas so she could buy me a pair. Or so I thought. Checking out the price tag, she looked at it disapprovingly, turned to me, and discreetly asked, “P2,500? Why do they cost so much? Do you really need to have this specific kind of shoes?”

Awkward silence. My heart sank as I looked down on the floor and started to tear up. My mom… so cruel! Agreeing to take me all the way to that store in Greenhills and leading me to believe that she’d buy me those sneakers, only to guilt-trip me with her questions in the end. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) bring myself to tell her, “Because that’s what everyone’s wearing in school. I want to be cool!” Needless to say, no purchase was made, and I resented my mom for depriving me of social acceptability in school by not buying me those all-important sneakers.

With levity, I shared this sneakers story some years back during a lunch gathering at home, and my family and our relatives and friends just laughed. Looking back, I myself was amused, and cringe at my younger, insecure and superficial self who subconsciously wanted to fit in and be accepted by my peers. Yet, at the same time, I do get why I was that way in my teens, and can empathize with young people who want to be just like everyone else in school, which is their immediate social world.

I wore a uniform again in college at the University of Santo Tomas. There, I got to appreciate the idea that a uniform can unify students regardless of their respective backgrounds and the schools they came from, as it conceals the differences that could otherwise alienate them from each other.

I returned to JASMS as a part-time teacher for school year 2004-2005, the year when our then principal decided to have high school students wear uniforms as well. This was initially opposed by some students and parents, I was told, although with time, everyone got used to it, and it became a non-issue altogether.

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I hope the Department of Education’s decision on school uniforms will indeed benefit students all over the country. At the same time, may the other problems plaguing the country’s education system be dealt with sensibly, given the many hardships that our students and teachers have gone through since the pandemic started in March 2020.

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Claude Lucas C. Despabiladeras is a voice talent for TV and radio commercials, English and Filipino-dubbed television series and movies, and for ABS-CBN’s Jeepney TV Channel.

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