Politics & Policy

Uniform Reason

The principles behind the polyester.

A nun, an entire Orthodox Jewish family, a bunch of Armenians, and several girls wearing the hijab walked into what I wish had been a bar, because then I could have ordered a drink, but was actually the crowded-with-screaming-children, polyester-filled school-uniform store where my daughter and I had to get new back-to-school clothes.

I’m not complaining (much), because my father, who lives with us, had done the hard part of going to the school to wrangle with the class schedule and books. That was just as well, as I would have gotten extremely snappish to hear the counselor’s disapproval when my daughter said she took college classes over the summer (“without permission!”), got herself an internship (“without permission!”) and plans to graduate a year early (“without permission!”).

Whether public or private, school is school, which means there’ll always be officious types who can’t stand it when anyone tries to color outside the lines. But so far I’ve found private-school administrators more accommodating than public-school ones, where I’ve had some experience. It was five years as a public-school parent, in fact, seeing the government blog up close and personal, that helped turned me from a Democrat into a Republican. But more about that in a minute.

Regarding the motley crew at that uniform store: Once again I noticed that while the anti-voucher set always argues that private schools are blander and less diverse than public schools, that’s not necessarily true–at least not in the case of small, unfancy private schools (e.g., the Hollywood crowd wouldn’t be caught dead sending their kids there) like my daughter’s. This is also the case with many of the schools attended by other kids in that uniform store, which sells to private schools (often religious ones) across Los Angeles.

The only public schools most people who argue against vouchers have even set foot in are relatively white/Asian, upper-middle-class schools way out in suburbia, or little pockets of white/Asian upper-middle-classness (like gifted magnets) within regular public schools. Or so it seems to me. Just before the last California vouchers initiative was voted down (in the 2000 election), I went to a debate at the University of Southern California and heard constitutional-law professor Erwin Chemerinsky argue against them.

“Trust me, I have two children in private school at $16,000 each,” Chemerinsky said, to illustrate that the $4,000 tax credit Prop. 38 would have provided towards private-school tuition is pointless. “The reality is, to provide a quality education costs this much money.”

But I didn’t trust him, because it doesn’t cost nearly that much at my daughter’s school, and with a $4,000 tax credit a lot more families could afford to enroll. Those from the liberal, more moneyed sections of town, whose children attend expensive private schools, always argue that vouchers would cause the middle class to abandon public schools. Which makes me wonder: Do they mean that only the rich should be allowed to abandon public schools?

As I said, I’ve had experience with the public-school system–in my case, one of the highly coveted “good” elementary schools. My daughter went there from first through the middle of fifth grade, when I transferred her to the private school she’s at now. Because I learned that this good little public school really wasn’t so good.

Much instructional time was wasted on video watching or pointless unacademic activities, and they didn’t like it if you opted out of the program. When my daughter was in third grade, for instance, the school began a practice of marching every student there two miles to the local high school to watch the fifth graders graduate, on the shade-free football field, in the broiling Los Angeles midday summer sun. I told the teacher that this sounded like a Mad Dogs and Englishmen kind of exercise and I’d rather have my daughter home reading or otherwise engaged in something educational during school hours.

“But these are her peers!” protested the teacher, who’d once screamed so loudly at a student that she’d actually begun to drool. I failed to see how third graders and fifth graders are peers.

“Well, then, if you don’t want her to go on the field trip she’ll have to sit the whole day in the office on a hard plastic chair,” the teacher said triumphantly.

“No,” I said, “I’m keeping her home, remember?” The good thing about being a writer working at home, especially one with Grandpa living downstairs, is that I always had that option. Crestfallen, the teacher walked away, muttering resentfully that some parents have child-care issues during the day.

Still, I often considered giving the public schools in my neighborhood another chance, but something would always happen to make me think again. When my daughter was nearing middle-school age, my civic-minded hairdresser told me about his campaign to raise enough money to donate a dictionary to every public-school classroom in the area. But when he’d stopped by the local middle school, the bored and sullen vice principal said they’d have to get back to him.

My hairdresser noticed she’d spelled the word “salon” as “saloon” on the message slip and said, “Actually, it’s ’salon.’ Like in hair ’salon.’” The vice principal looked at him blankly. “Right, s-a-l-o-o-n,” she said. “How else would you spell it?”

Last year a friend of mine decided to remove her daughter from private school, since all she did was complain about it, and put her in the local high school for senior year. Neighborhood parents were generally horrified, but I thought it was a reasonable idea: If the girl was going to be a pill about school, why not be a pill for several thousand dollars less a year?

And she did make friends, like Nestor, a ninth grader who followed her around while flashing gang signs and yelling, “Hey Cheryl!”

“I told you, Nestor, my name’s Sharon.”

“Ha! Right, Cheryl. Sorry. Anyway, Cheryl, I got something to tell you.”


“You a dumba**!”

This conversation was repeated at least once a day. Nestor just never tired of that “You a dumba**!” punchline.

At least it seemed friendly, and I briefly considered transferring my daughter there myself to save money. Sharon was taking practically all honors classes, so I hoped to hear stories about poor but plucky kids who worked hard and got good grades.

“So how are the kids there?” I asked her one day.

“They’re nice. They’re all idiots though.”

“Every single one?”

“Every. Single. One.”

And it really sounded like that was true. In honors English, for instance, Sharon wrote a simple poem and everyone acted as though she’d written an epic saga in Latin. How’d she do that?

Sharon’s mother rolled her eyes and pointed out that teenagers are absolutely sure they know everything, and I should take her daughter’s opinion with a grain of salt. Maybe so. But I think one thing teenagers do know is how to correctly size up other teenagers.

My daughter enters tenth grade next week and she continues to basically enjoy her private school. although naturally there are ups and downs. Last year she lucked out with a good science teacher, a smart but cranky Armenian guy who tells kids they look like “Turkish peasants” if their uniforms are sloppy. I can’t imagine a teacher getting away with this at the fancier private schools in town, but I don’t mind it. One of the things about my daughter’s school is its old-fashioned ethnic jostling, which I guess isn’t the worst thing in the world, as realizing this exists can be an education in itself.

One day the science teacher took a break from his Turkish-peasant inspection to suddenly stare at my daughter and demand, “Are you Jewish?”


“My mother was Jewish. Here, you can have the best lab coat.” Which was ridiculous, as all the lab coats were identical. But of course, it’s the thought that counts.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.


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