BRAD CLEMONS: When peer pressure haunts the back-to-school shopping experience

Sunday, August 7, 2011 | 5:32 p.m. CDT; updated 12:42 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 8, 2011

School days. It’s that time of year when much of the country picks out new clothes. Students are excited, moms are obligated and dads are ticked off. Even us teachers are uptight about it.

The first day of school is like the ultimate show-and-tell day. And everyone must come to the front.

The excited ones know their presentation will improve their social standing. The others are excited until they arrive at school and realize that styles changed sometime in May. Even if they were happy to begin with, the signals from their peers will rattle their world.

Often adults forget how big a deal this is. In the professional world, a person only needs to send one signal: “I know what I’m doing.” In primary and secondary educational settings, myriad messages can be conveyed.

There’s the don’t-mess-with-me message, the you-want-to-be-like-me message and the I-refuse-to-give-out-a-message message.

The last one is the most difficult. By the time students reject the obvious messages by eliminating all color and design in their fashion, they discover that few options are left.

Even the desire to be different is about social standing and image. One of the saddest spectacles on the first day is to watch the non-conformists walk in with confidence, only to find out they are not original at all.

“What!? You wore black, too? This is preposterous! Tell me you don’t have a chain on your right pocket — dang it! What are the odds?”

If a school is big enough, the odds of dressing uniquely are so low, some kid will inevitably find himself in a Willy Wonka outfit, riding a unicycle to school.

I once wore red cowboy boots. (That deserves its own discussion.)

Parents look at back-to-school shopping as an opportunity to keep their kids from sending messages — such as, the I’m-pretty-but-have-a-low-self-esteem message, the offer-me-drugs message and the whatever-message-Eminem-gives message. However, the ruin-my-life-on-Facebook message is still acceptable.

Teachers are aware of the role clothes play in a school setting. We all know that some students are so critical that any attire they consider either too awful or too amazing renders them incapable of learning.

Female teachers avoid looking too attractive. Similarly — not that it matters but just to explain where I'm coming from — I like to keep my potbelly and, thus, tend to look like a Sesame Street character. When I turn to the left I can say, “See, I’m the letter ‘P’ written in cursive.” Kick out my right leg. “Now … I’m an ‘R’ in italics.”

I’ve had a number of students with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but only as it applies to the behavior of others. For example, if I erase part of a sentence on the board and leave the rest, I can watch at least three kids break into a sweat.

But with fashion it gets crazy. One day I naively wore brown shoes with black slacks. Holy Frijoles!  

After a class, two girls came up to me for an intervention, and with such full hearts you would’ve thought they were coaxing me down from a ledge. 

I told them to talk to my hand. The uncoolness sent them into shock, and they left me alone. 

Students with such keen observational skills terrify the others. It’s as if they have Special Forces training from the Fashion Marines. They can see every flaw in every person, even in a crowded room, all while maintaining perfect eye contact with their operative.

“See the girl now walking behind the pillar on the far corner of the lunchroom, wearing a red blouse with the ruffled top over a black undershirt sold at Old Navy from approximately October ’09 to July of last year?”

“The one next to the teacher who only has seven shirts that he rotates, as if we don’t notice?”

“Yes, her. Her left leg is one-quarter of an inch longer than her right.”

“I noticed. Let’s not hang out with her.”

These Bourne-like girls can field dress any wardrobe wound and disguise their true identities with a survival make-up kit. While not representative of the whole, this type does exist, and, consequently, the rest are made keenly aware of their appearance.

Even boys can be intimidated. At times, they feel like mannequins, as if the girls look at them and say, “We will create him in our own image.”  

Already, the boys are surrounded by the forces of benign feminization. There are only a couple sanctuaries left — the locker room and the bathroom.  That’s why young men go into those places and pee on everything — they are just marking their territory.

So, how can we fix the situation? Uniforms? Maybe. On-staff fashion counselors? Sure.

I have a better idea. Tattoos.

If students were able get tattoos at an early age, even the meanest girl could have Dora the Explorer’s face on her hand and “I’m the Map, I’m the Map, I’m the Map, I’m the Map, I’m the Map!” down her arm. Try looking cool with that.

Boys wouldn’t be able to bully anyone because they would be identified by the Backyardigans character on their necks.

If one of them asks his victim, “What are you laughing at, punk!?” the bullied one can say, “I’m sorry, but you have Super Tooter written on your forehead.”

See, teachers can provide lots of great solutions, if anyone would listen to us. Since that’s not likely to happen, I just hope parents will be compassionate and thoughtful during this back-to-school season.

They need to know that all kids, for better or worse, arrive at school with a message.

Brad Clemons lives in Columbia and writes on an Acer laptop with an Apple sticker covering the emblem.

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