I have it on good authority that a child’s academic and creative achievements are directly related to what their parents wear.
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It’s a fact. And it’s simple: A child’s success rate and their parents’ sense of style are exactly inversely proportional. Show me any high school senior with sky-high ACT scores and a dazzling portfolio of creative work, and I’ll show you a parent with sensible shoes, ill-fitting slacks, a sweatshirt that should never be worn outside the garage – but often is – and a do-it-yourself haircut.
Is the mom or dad beaming? Yes. Is the child humiliated? Oh yes. And does that add up to inspired and responsible parenting? EXACTLY YES.
When I say I have this on good authority, I mean my own. I mean the authority vested in me by a father, who, when he came home from work as the school principal to a house full of daughters who were still fighting over who’d borrowed who’s sweater-nail polish-curling iron that morning, he – my father – immediately changed out of his suit and tie and into boxer shorts, a white-ish v-neck t-shirt, a thin blue knee-length bathrobe, and shower thongs. This was his ensemble by 5:30 p.m. every weeknight of my growing-up life. It happened right at the time of day when some young people might call a friend to come over – homework’s mostly done, dinner’s not quite ready, so a person might call up J.J., from down the street, to come play Barbies, or whatever. Except there’s Dad. Like a thrift shop underwear clearance ad spread out on the recliner, feet way up comfy on the footrest, flexing the shower thongs back and forth. Back and forth. Making clear that “comfort” was a family value but “pedicure” was not.
I speak from the power vested in me by the neighbor lady, Sylvia, J.J’s mom, who was cooler than most moms because Sylvia was divorced and Sylvia drove a conversion van with floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting, but she was still a mom, and when she got together with my mom and the rest of the neighbor ladies to help each other out with the yard work, it’s no joke about “it takes a village” because the combined tableau of Sylvia in cutoffs and a homemade halter top, and my mom* in cutoffs and a tank top, and Mrs. Schafer in a swimsuit with a skort attached, all of them weeding the yard together, my yard, the front yard, across the street from a house of boys, who we sometimes hoped would come outside (J.J. and I hoped, often, as we roller-skated up and down and up and down the driveway) but not today. Please, God, not now, not with these women – this village, our mothers – baring their thighs and armpits in the cul-de-sac’s beating, bleaching sun.
Such moments force a young person to dig deep. They push a tender mind to think outside the cul-de-sac.
And as a result, instead of having J.J. over to waste the night playing Barbies or a board game, a girl might retreat to her room and lock the door and cut off the long sleeves of a silky pink nightgown and repurpose them into matching sarongs for Malibu Barbie and Malibu Skipper. And give them short shag haircuts, as well, and pierce their ears with straight pins – the points stuck in at just the right angles so as not to poke through the soft plastic scalps – and voila. The thrill of creation, of creating.
And when J.J. sees those works of art, later, she loves them, and word gets out to the rest of the girls in the neighborhood, and orders are placed, and more nightgowns are sacrificed, more Barbies coutured, and a lifelong love of style and scissors and art and capitalism is born.
Humiliation works like a fixative. Under pleasant circumstances, any child can memorize the state capitols well enough to pass a test. But then it’s gone. It doesn’t stick. Pleasant circumstances are a sieve. Give a child that same task as the only refuge from a church picnic where his particular nuclear family has chosen to wear matching t-shirts with wordplay rhyming the family name with something special for everyone – you know, like, Sean Fee, Fantastic And Free; Diane Fee, Say It With Glee; Scott Fee, The Best You’ll See –
and by God, that child will feel a strong urge to study for Monday’s quiz. And he will retreat to the safety of the family station wagon, foregoing Frisbee and potato salad and group photos in favor of memorizing Albany-Annapolis-Atlanta-Augusta-Austin. And those cities will never leave his brain because they’re fused with the memory of a very red shirt in a very public park, where there were girls across the way playing tetherball, oh please look, oh no please don’t, please see me here in the station wagon NO PLEASE DON’T Springfield-St. Paul-Tallahassee-Topeka-Trenton.
Fixed. Fused. And ready for recall on every standardized test for the rest of that child’s high-achieving life.
You see, then, why I fear for today’s children when I witness parents in parks and on the streets and in our schools dressed in the style of the day. So contemporary. So coordinated. So completely dismissive of the toxins they’re spilling into the tender eyes of their young.
I see well-toned, lightly spray-tanned moms in tasteful maxi-dresses that float behind the strollers they push downtown to the Children’s Museum. I see dads in fitted t-shirts that have not pit stains or ragged collars, but the word “Townie” printed on the front and “56001” on the back, which means not only his shirt stylish, but he bought it at Tune Town which means he supports the local arts scene, and his belly is not bulging but instead is trim and appears to ripple when the wind at the park blows the shirt back against him. And his jeans are not cutoffs, they’re not Sansabelt golf shorts, they’re jeans, they’re just fine, they give a son or daughter nothing to fear. Nothing to cringe about. No need to hide inside a station wagon. Those jeans might, in fact, be something an older child would aspire to wear themselves.
To dress like Dad.
Thirty years ago? Unthinkable. Today? You see the problem. (more…)