My squeaky desk was positioned near the industrial windows adorned with fingerprints, overlooking the highway. It was hardly one of the premier views from our newly renovated middle school.
I stared intently at my lanky teacher while rows of his glistening, grey hairs stood proudly as he addressed the class. He consistently called on me, and I was always prepared to answer. I had the preamble memorized top to bottom. He paced from one side of the room to the other, when suddenly I noticed his transfixed gaze in my direction.
“Kaitlin, can you please step outside into the hallway?” He demanded.
My stomach dropped. His tone permeated my bones. Moisture abandoned my throat and my mouth moved like it was hosting a pint of peanut butter.
I’m in trouble? I’m never in trouble. Am I chewing gum? Did I forget a homework assignment?
I pushed my seat back, straightened my skirt, and made what I would later understand to be my walk of shame to the hallway while 25 sets of eyes stalked my stride.
However, once in the hallway, my teacher’s eyes now anxiously toggled from left to right. They never met mine. A fog of his disappointment descended on my shoulders.
But what did I do?
An eternally long minute passed before my other teacher emerged from her respective classroom.
“Can you please take care of this? I’m going back to my class,” he said.
He turned swiftly back into the room, never once dignifying me with eye contact.
This? I thought.
“Right,” she started, “so, I was informed that your skirt is much too short. You need to change into your gym clothes or have your parents bring you something to change into. Go down to the office and wait there until you can change.”
My skirt?! Two of my friends wore the same one today. Are they in trouble? What about the preamble?
My 13-year-old brain spun out into a four-way intersection with no working blinker.
Hardly uttering a response to my teacher, I approached the direction of the stairwell to make my descent to the elusive office with my head hung below my neck. Tugging on the hem of my skirt with each step, I rotated my pull from the right, to the left, to the back, to the front.
Do I even have gym clothes with me today?
What will I do if I don’t? Call my mom? No, no, no—that’s not an option.
My heart pumped and my cheeks flushed as my disgraced skirt and I walked through the gym to the locker room. The gym class in session sent puzzled stares my way.
Why is she down here right now? She’s not even in this class.
I didn’t check to see if any of my friends were in the class. No time to waste. I hustled past with skirt tugs guiding my steps toward the locker room.
My eyes frantically panned across the rusty, numbered lockers until I eventually identified my own. There was nothing in it but a pair of shorts.
These couldn’t be much better than my demonic skirt.
Defeated, I made my way to the office where I would make a reluctant call to my single, working mom. Sweat bullets collected on my lower back as I lifted the phone receiver to my ear with an aloof office staff audience.
“Hi, mom. Can you bring a pair of pants to the school for me? They said my skirt is too short. I’m in the office now.”
It was in the early afternoon. My mom was a speech therapist at an elementary school that was 30 minutes away. Since the moment my teacher initiated this dress code enforcement, half of a class period had already passed.
This was certainly not the last time I would be in this position. It’s only one of numerous examples throughout middle school and high school when I was told to change my clothes because it was distracting to the boys.
What, exactly, was distracting?
My limbs? My shoulder when I was told to cover up by my biology teacher in the hallway? My collar bones when I wore a tank top?
They were distracted. Did they say this?
Were there any metrics to measure the distraction rate of boys and the imminent failure of their education as a whole? Was there any proof that my shoulder was so enticing that an entire class period was wasted by half of the students? Was my developing body, that I barely understood myself, really a deterrent to the development of knowledge in our school district?
What about the distraction it was for me?
I was physically removed from classes. I was shamed in front of my classmates. I was made to interrupt the day of my single, working mom to accommodate the presumed sexual desires of pre-teen and teen boys.
I didn’t know the connotation behind it all. I didn’t understand sex. I didn’t understand sex appeal.
I was wearing what was on the shelves of most mainstream stores. I didn’t alter skirts to be shorter, or cut shirts to make them expose more of my chest.
Now, approaching my 30s, and in the wake of this collective cultural heightened awareness, I can’t help but want to reach out and hug “middle school me”—for all the times she was stopped in the hallway, or pulled out of her seat, or reprimanded for wearing clothes.
In today’s climate, certain school districts’ claims about the inability to require masks to be worn calls me back to this frequently overlooked misstep in our society—”The Dress Code.”
Recently, school officials have been quoted about how “they cannot force students to wear a mask.” They say masks for students can’t be mandated—from my experience I’d say that’s only because it’s a mandate.
When the rules apply exclusively to women and girls, the dress code gets an approval stamp faster than the removal of girls from classrooms who are classified as dress code violators.
A simple, accessible piece of cloth recommended by the CDC to help curtail the climbing number of 220,000 Americans lost to COVID-19 has been somehow regarded as too far, authoritarian, even. Yet, pieces of cloth that serve no life saving, nor threatening, purpose have dictated the school days of female students for decades. No Abercrombie skirt has ever spread a vicious virus.
It’s time to see a shift in how girls and young women are treated in schools who are doing their best to focus on learning while the world is busy distracting them from their power.
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