Along the wall outside my classroom there is a series of senior class photos. The series spans years, halted — temporarily — at 2010. Currently those frames, hair-sprayed above the lockers, are the only visible reminders of really awesome people. It’s shameful that we mount those poor people up there, frozen in their own humiliation, like trophy game hunted down by the fashion police.
I love catching students now snickering at the older pictures, saying, “I’m sorry, but there is no way those glasses were ever cool.”
I like to say: “See that one there? She was the cool one. That will be you in 20 years. You will look that ridiculous.”
But in their youth, unspoiled by reality, the students never believe me.
These movements and fads, no matter how permanent and true they feel, they deceive people into great calamity. Each new wave seems like the solution to the previous fashion disaster, like “this is it — we have finally gotten it right — it is not possible to be cooler than this.”
These thoughts come to mind this morning since today is picture day at our school. In the past — out of compassion — I have confessed to the students that I had a mullet when I was 13. I pause for laughter. Then I reveal that the mullet was also permed. Their faces go from explosive laughter to shock, back to laughter and then shock again, followed by “… How did this happen?”
The explanation is difficult to recount, but if it can help one of them avoid similar pain, I’ll sacrifice my pride — again.
I tell them that I was a victim of the times. This was the age of Trans Ams and rock bands. T-shirts came in any combination of three styles: cut-off, sleeveless or mesh. Apparently Kmart was rationing fabric. Plus, I was set up by my aunt. I trusted her. She had never steered me wrong, and she had recommended some righteous red cowboy boots to my cousin. My aunt was so cool. She had a VCR and a water bed and a microwave. Since I had no sisters, I thought all women were as honest as my mom. When my aunt told me a tight perm in my mullet would be cool, I had no reason to question it.
I should have known better. She was married to the man that gave me a handsaw when I was 3 and watched me saw my grandma’s coffee table down the middle.
As an adult, I have forgiven her. I am choosing to believe that she was just as swept away as the rest of us. People should not be judged out of their time.
The crime was committed at a tender point of life for me. I was leaving the harsh, mean streets of Sedalia, where my faux-hawk fit well with my terrifying bicycle gang that we three fourth-graders named "The Roadrunners." I moved out to a country town where everyone was related and drove lawn tractors to school. I’m mostly joking. I loved the school eventually, though my faux-hawk impeded my assimilation into the culture for a couple of years. It was like "Footloose" in that a city kid went to a small school, except here no one liked the kid, and the teachers promoted dances the kids didn't want.
But, it is there that my picture is hair-sprayed on a wall and there that my stone-washed jeans are rolled up at the bottoms in a yearbook and there that I have many great memories — after the two years it took to grow my mullet. By the seventh grade, I had my mullet and a perm, and life seemed pretty good. None of us knew it was wrong then.
To my aunt’s credit, in the late ’80s to early ’90s, if a person played soccer, he had to have a mullet. Sure there were lots of pretty boys that played well, but they could never be captain. The mullet was like a superpower. One time a good friend of mine, Sampson, missed a critical shot shortly after his girlfriend from a rival school made him cut his hair. Everyone turned on him. The entire program went downhill, and we players were sent off into exile. Somewhere in the time of AC/DC and Vanilla Ice it made sense, so much so that even the permed mullet went unaddressed by those who claimed to love me.
Before you judge, dear reader, let’s review: The ’60s had headbands and bell-bottoms and tie-dye; the ’70s boasted polyester and rhinestones and chest hair; and the ’80s offered hair bands and Don Johnson pastels and parachute pants. Time does not permit me to expound on tramp stamps, turtlenecks, poof bangs, Goths who break conformity by conforming together, jean shorts and wristwatches with calculators. Somewhere there is a picture of me in James Worthy sports glasses. I would not lie about that. Obviously.
Wherever you fit in there, I think we can all agree that mistakes have been made.
So, today is picture day.
I can see them coming in now. The fashion-magazine girls will have on their natural-tone makeup — an oxymoron. Every third or so girl will be wearing unnecessary layers with the knit sweater that only covers her rib cage, as if once in the sixth grade she fell down a rabbit hole and found the cup that said, “Drink me.” The others, the cool ones, will have moved on, seeing the silliness of style. They will all be dressed the same: throwback shoes, hip-hugger jeans and T-shirts advertising something random like “Crawford Fish Wharf.” We all know there is no such place except in the mind of a marketing team at Old Navy.
I know I’m completely defeated by fashion. I wear whatever the J.C. Penney’s clearance rack tells me to wear. But at least I know it. These poor fools are walking into a permanent photograph with no perspective. Several boys will have the collar popped on their best metrosexual polo shirt and be sporting a Bieber cut. I consider it part of my mission to stand in the gap.
Brad Clemons has been teaching for nine years, depending on whom you ask.