No rich or poor: School uniforms as the great equalizer
The Department of Education’s stand allowing public school students to wear civilian clothes this coming school year drew varying opinions, as well as memes showing students going to school in cosplayer outfits. I pondered on this a lot more when I read “Uniform power” by Claude Lucas C. Despabiladeras (Commentary, 7/30/22). During my school days, I always took notice of my classmates’ various attires. With their limited income, my parents could not buy me enough clothes and shoes, so I mostly wore hand-me-downs from an aunt, and some out-of-style (that we now call “vintage”) clothes scavenged from our cabinet. These included mothball-smelling blouses that my mother and grandmother used to wear. Even uniforms that the children of our neighbors had outgrown or no longer needed were passed on to me.
For four years in elementary school, I wore the same hand-me-down skirt from one such neighbor, which was initially too long that the hem had to be folded and stitched to the right length. As each year passed and I grew taller, the hem would be adjusted, until in the sixth grade, my uniform became a miniskirt. I got teased for it, but I did not let that affect me since I was still wearing a uniform. Ill-fitting, yes, but still a uniform.
High school was no different, as I made do with two blouses, one dark blue skirt, a necktie of the same color, a PE t-shirt, a pair of shoes, and a pair of white socks that an uncle used to own. Add to that a pair of pre-loved rubber shoes. As I had to wash my skirt and necktie every two days, their color soon faded, while my blouse became threadbare and somewhat see-through. My PE shirt’s red piping soon turned pinkish as well. My shoes were shiny black as I constantly used Kiwi shoe polish on them, but their soles soon had cracks so my feet ended up getting wet when I accidentally stepped on a puddle. I had to secure my socks with rubber bands on my ankles as they were too loose.
I did not mind all that and learned to adjust, standing behind a classmate with a wide girth for class pictures. Wearing a uniform like that of my classmates made me feel equal to them. It was only on such occasions like Christmas parties or school fairs when some classmates would wear branded clothes and shoes that our economic status became obvious.
In college at a state university, I had a single pair of jeans given by an aunt and a few shirts emblazoned with the logo of hardware stores that gave them away. I’d wear them repeatedly on our wash days once a week, until a classmate noticed the all too familiar clothing, and asked why I kept wearing them. “Don’t you have other clothes?” he asked. Unsure if he had asked out of pity or mockingly, I replied that I had exactly one pair of pants. “Kaya nga gusto ko na hindi wash day para hindi nahahalata, pero napansin mo pa din pala (I was hoping nobody would notice but you did),” I added.
Getting asked that tactless question was nothing compared to my younger sister’s experience at the same university a few years later. Despite having passed its entrance exam, she opted not to enroll. When asked about it at home, she only gave vague responses. Years later, she intimated to me that she did not enroll because she felt too self-conscious about not having enough clothes to wear during the first semester of freshman year when students wore civilian attire. It pained me to discover this. Had I known, I would have helped my younger sister in her predicament.
School year 2022-2023 kicks off on Aug. 22. I guess I should not be surprised if my students show up in our face-to-face classes diversely garbed in civilian clothes or uniforms. Whatever they choose, or their economic circumstances allow them, I’d see to it that no student feels alienated and that a culture of equality prevails in our class, so people would see past the clothing and treat each other with kindness and compassion. Our classroom will be their safe space, where they will feel welcome and at ease.
Sauyo High School, Quezon City
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