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Marie S. MyersNovember 16, 1963
First-grade students finish an assignment at St. Ambrose Catholic School in Tucson, Ariz., in this 2014 photo. (CNS file photo/Nancy Wiechec)

This article from Nov. 16, 1963 reportedly garnered more letters to the editor than any article published in America to that date. In the 55 years since its publication, school uniforms have seen a marked increase in popularity, in public as well as Catholic schools.

Question: Why is tuition in Catholic schools often ridiculously low? Answer: To help poor and large families.

Well and good. But why should these same schools, whose students come from all financial brackets, require that uniforms be worn by the children of these same poor and large families?

We'd like to take a stand, not only for ourselves, but for some of those same "poor and large families." Because we in our family feel that several important points are being overlooked.

We do not oppose school uniforms. What we oppose is the requirement that Catholic children conform to the uniform or else forfeit admittance to their parochial school.

First, we feel this is an invasion of basic parental rights and duties. To clothe our children is elementary to our profession. Unless this duty is abused by indecency or uncleanliness, unless a better than normal result can be demonstrated for uniforms, we honestly feel uniforms shouldn't be mandatory.

Parents should be encouraged to fulfill parental duties, encouraged to provide their young with nutritious food, clothe them tastefully, shelter them lovingly. And most parents do want to fulfill them. We decry other agencies' so doing—unless forced to for the individual child's sake.

"But children look so nice in uniforms."

Granted. But why should children be made to look uniform? The God who created them molded each in a separate cast. Each child is unique—psychically, physically, emotionally. Why must all seem alike?

We do not oppose school uniforms. What we oppose is the requirement that Catholic children conform to the uniform or else forfeit admittance to their parochial school.

Besides, those who will be different later in life— who will perhaps leave society to enter the priesthood, sisterhood, brotherhood, even to enter such groups as the Peace Corps—need the freedom to be different from childhood up. "But it's so much cheaper."

Here is a well-kept secret. We are amazed that our confreres, the public school parents, haven't discovered this ages ago—to their good fortune.

A parochial school is actually a Catholic public school supported by parents and attended by children from all kinds of backgrounds. In this sense it differs from a private school of a specific financial or class background. For many families with children in parochial schools, uniforms may indeed prove cheaper. But for others they very definitely are not. We wonder how many relatively well-to-do people can fathom the tremendous financial hardship this extra burden puts on some parents. And the fact that it puts it on some is worth thinking about.

Non-mothers would be surprised at the amount of exchange that goes on, particularly among large families, of usable but outgrown clothing. It has occurred to us that if an Abraham Lincoln is being molded in America today, he definitely will not be found in a parochial school. He'd never make it to the entrance.

"But when my daughter wears a uniform, she doesn't complain of others' being better dressed than she is."

No matter when she finds out, find out she must that some daddies have more money or less children than her own. Early acceptance of this fact may forestall her cry ten years later: "But Joan's parents spent $3,000 on her wedding, why can't you?"

On the other hand, we fail to see why a family in which the father has worked hard and faithfully to accumulate a little extra must dress its children as cheaply as possible. Expensive clothing does not necessarily mean flashy clothing. Quite the contrary. But a woman who wishes to dress her child in the finest wool should be allowed to. Its purchase was won by hard work and high incentive. Why must both financial extremes be swept into "accepted" anonymity?

Aside from all this, we think the lumping of boys and girls together in this uniform discussion is unrealistic. In the first place, we know that in very many families, uniforms are cheaper for girls. (But what about the families that have provided much lovely clothing for their daughters? How "cheap" are uniforms for them?) For families with boys, however, uniforms can be a definite hardship.

Take ours, for example. We have six boys (two little girls, too, thanks be to God!) For rough-and-tumble play, we dress them in sturdy corduroys—after school. But don't they ever play that way at school in their dress trousers? At the end of the day, white shirts tattle on the exuberant nature with which God endowed boys. Neat, dark-print shirts aren't quite so revealing. No chance of these natty trouser-knees' surviving daily Mass, either!

"But have you ever listened to the 'what-will-I-wear?’ daily routine?"

Not yet, we admit. But isn't it a confession of parental inadequacy when some daughters are permitted to nag incessantly about their clothing? Much has to be put up with in the long-range training of sons and daughters. The easy way out for us isn't always the best way out for them.

Modesty, too, is often brought up in making a case for uniforms. The mother and daughter who show they need such education, we feel, are the only ones who should be so educated by school authorities. We do not believe that other mothers and daughters should be penalized with uniforms in order to eliminate this sad deficiency. Besides, couldn't one feel that—forgive the pun—uniforms for this reason are just covering up? The basic need for modesty must be understood. Otherwise the "lesson" of uniforms will go unheeded—after school hours.

But why should children be made to look uniform? The God who created them molded each in a separate cast. Each child is unique—psychically, physically, emotionally. Why must all seem alike?

Now, we do not mean to oppose any school or parent who really wants uniforms. (Isn't it wonderful to live in free America?) But we do plead against the compulsion of wearing them in order to get spiritual—and of course material—aid in rearing our children.

"But having optional uniforms would harm a child psychologically, if he didn't wear them."

We've been through a year of that, with our lads non-uniformed along with many of their classmates. Their psyche is anything but burdened!

Educational costs for Catholic parents are soaring yearly. We have heavy taxes to pay in order to help educate our fellow Americans' children. And we try whole-heartedly to support all Catholic school plans to raise money to educate our own as we dearly desire. But must we spend additional dollars to uniform our children, when no real spiritual or academic benefit is involved?

One day, we happened to read an institutional magazine aimed at the Catholic market, in which the case for uniforms was approvingly set forth by a woman writer (no doubt a "Miss"!) Pastors, mother superiors, one father, enthusiastically endorsed the uniform program. When we read, however, that almost 30 companies cater to the Catholic school uniform trade, that they send out 10,000 catalogues each year to Catholic schools, that their goal is to uniform the 50 percent of Catholic schools still holding out, we realize the inadequacy of mere logic. The catalogues include such phrases as "Choose the new A-line skirt with its Paris - inspired, prestige look" and include references to the Ivy League department for boys!

Historically, of course, uniforms came to us from Europe. There, all school children have worn them—plain and drab ones—for years. Their purpose was to show the docility and obedience expected of a child toward rightful authority. Naturally, when Catholic schools were established here in America by Europeans new in this country, the idea continued. It was the private schools that gradually adopted uniforms. Gradually, too, the uniform became a status symbol for those who could afford private schools.

Then, with the age of total equality, with mass production, with Madison Avenue promotion, uniforms left the domain of the private school and found their home again in Catholic "public" parochial schools— their original reason for existence pretty well obscured. That some other reasons may be valid—less argument, less demarcation of background, less expense (sometimes)—does not erase the fact that there is also less parental control of a basic parental duty. Where better begin to reassert this parental control than right in the home?

But what about those who run our schools? What about our pastors and mother superiors and devoted teaching sisters? Aren't we being selfish in not wanting students to be as chic and as spit-and-polish perfect as the new edifices of glass and brick?

Certainly we can understand that our sisters like uniforms. (They're women, just like ourselves, in this matter.) And our pastors like them, too. They want to feel happy and proud of their charges, just as parents do. Only we have that feeling once or twice a year—Easter Sunday and Christmas, when all have a new pair of shoes and new clothing. We haven't that delight every day.

Our suggestion, then, is that uniforms not be obligatory for everyday wear. But if uniforms are to be worn, let it be for special occasions: Mother General's visit, important assemblies, parades—somewhat the same arrangement as colleges have with caps and gowns.

One uniform per child would take a lot of wearing in this way. It could be handed down from child to child in good, wearable condition. Uniforms could also be exchanged in better shape, because they would be outgrown but not outworn.

Children would feel "dressed up" for the special school occasions, and be on their very best behavior, too—like Mother and Daddy when they go to Mass. Do not think we are alone in our dilemma. A national Catholic magazine once carried an article favorable to uniforms. The editor was so deluged with protests from parents that he feels the topic should be discussed at the national convention of Catholic educators.

In voicing our own thoughts on mandatory uniforms, remember, we do not imply that the reasons already mentioned in support of them are completely invalid. They represent the sincere wishes of many fine priests, sisters, parents. We honor their opinions. But we feel that opposite opinions may be equally valid, and should be heard. We plead that there is definitely another reaction—besides complete acquiescence—to the uniform question. And finally we should ask ourselves: To what end is all this? Why do we lay such importance on being uniformly different in dress from our neighbors' public school children? When our blessed Lord urged His apostles to suffer the little children to come unto Him, did He specify only those in white togas?

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