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Uniforms

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

To my first school, run by an order of German nuns in Barcelona, I wore a black- and-white houndstooth jumper and a long-sleeved white cotton blouse. In the classroom we wore a white coverall to catch the spatters from our dip pens as we practiced handwriting. And to protect our modesty while we did calisthenics in the garden, we wore bloomers under our skirts. 

My school in Quito, run by the Sisters of Mercy, required two uniforms, one for regular days—blue-and-white check with short sleeves and gathered skirt–and one for special occasions (el uniforme de fiestas). Since my parents’ original plan was to stay in Ecuador for only one year, my mother explained to the principal that it didn’t make sense to have two uniforms made. Would just the regular one suffice? The principal said it would. 

The problem was that the principal neglected to issue a school-wide edict declaring me exempt from the uniforme de fiestas. That fall, school had not been long in session before a special occasion arose in all its awesome grandeur: the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, patroness of the order. The day dawned light and clear over the Andes, as most days did in those pre-pollution times. The volcanoes ringing the city twinkled and sparkled under their eternal snows. In the school courtyard, my fellow students were assembled, and what had been a sea of light blue was now a sea of navy: el uniforme de fiestas. 

Even to my ten-year-old eyes the outfit looked weirdly old-fashioned: a scoop-necked wool dress with a white cotton “dickey,” it was belted at the waist and had wide sleeves gathered in folds at the wrist. The skirt, deeply pleated, fell to mid-calf. An absurd beret, also navy blue, crowned the effect. This being the 1950s, my classmates wore starched crinolines under the pleated skirt, which made it swing like a bell with every step, and patent leather Mary Janes. 

I entered the courtyard in my everyday uniform and the scuffed lace-up ankle boots designed to correct my supposedly flat feet. “Why aren’t you wearing your uniforme de fiestas?” whispered one of the girls in my class. 

“It’s because…My mother said…,” I mumbled. 

La Mercedes won’t care what your mother said. She will be furious,” the girl warned me. 

La Mercedes, the vice-principal, was notorious for her temper. She soon spotted me as we lined up to enter the chapel, and wanted to know why I was disgracing the school on this, the most sacred of fiestas. I again stammered about my mother and the principal, and she frowned, shrugged, and sent me to the back of the line. 

That first year, I endured several more feast days in the wrong uniform, believing that in the summer I would go back to Barcelona where my non-controversial uniform and the German nuns were waiting for me. But several months after our arrival in Quito, the Ecuadorean government had mysteriously run out of money to pay my father’s string quartet their contracted salaries, and between endless promises that the money would come soon, and endless negotiations to get at least part of what was owed to us, we stayed in Quito almost four years. 

I was ten, then eleven, twelve, thirteen. Every fall the drama of the uniform was reenacted. Every time I showed up in ordinary blue when the school was in festival navy, nuns, lay teachers and students were outraged. “But why are you wearing the wrong uniform?” they would ask, as if it were my first offence. And every time I was at a loss for words. I understood that my mother, who on one occasion had had to borrow my allowance to buy groceries when the Government neglected to pay my father’s salary, could not afford to hire a seamstress to make me one of those awful navy outfits. But I also knew that, in that school, few things mattered as much as showing up in the right clothes for the right occasion. When nuns frowned and shook their heads and sent me to the back of the line, when my classmates asked why, why, why, I felt that I, and I alone, was responsible. 

Things got much better when I entered a Catholic high school in Birmingham, Alabama. Here, in the land of the free, there were no uniforms, and once I got my mother to understand that it was unacceptable to wear the same outfit to school  two days in a row (“But why? If it’s not really dirty…”), the clothing dramas temporarily abated. 

But in tenth grade, the school decided to institute uniforms. Perhaps some prophetic soul had seen miniskirts on the horizon and decided to take preemptive action. Whatever the reason, our mothers were instructed to go to Pizitz, Birmingham’s premier department store, to buy the uniform, which consisted of a plaid, pleated skirt and a short-sleeved white cotton blouse. My mother was fine with the skirt, but she saw no reason to buy the regulation white blouse, because she had a perfectly good white blouse hanging in her closet that she was sure would fit me. Never mind that her blouse was nylon rather than cotton, and had pearl rather than plain flat buttons. 

I warned her that it would never do. I argued and pleaded, but she was unmoved. I don’t believe that lack of money was my mother’s reason for her refusal to buy the uniform blouse–the Birmingham Symphony was a lot better about paying its musicians than the Ecuadorean government had been. Maybe she thought that two white blouses in a single household would be sheer American extravagance. Whatever the reason, she sent me to school in the nylon blouse. 

It did not take long for what I had foreseen to come about. I was summoned to the office. There I was interrogated by the principal’s secretary—mercifully not by the Monsignor himself, who perhaps thought it improper to concern himself with female attire—about my incorrect blouse. And suddenly, as I stood looking at my feet while she glared down at me, my brain was flooded with the clear understanding that this was not my problem. 

It was my mother’s problem, and it was the school’s problem, but it had nothing to do with me. It was notmy job to reconcile two opposing sets of adult requirements. I was notmorally responsible for their contradictory ideas of what was right. Let them fight it out among themselves, I said to myself, feeling a mixture of relief tinged with righteous fury. 

And so I looked the secretary in the eye and said, in a voice that trembled only slightly, “My mother has decided that this is the blouse she wants me to wear. Perhaps she cannot afford to buy another one. You could always call and ask her….” The secretary nodded and sent me back to class, and I never heard another word about uniforms again.

Fourth grade, in Barcelona, in the garden of the German school. I\’m in the last row, next to Mater Leonarda

 

3 Responses

  1. They wanted you to shame your mother into doing what they wanted – good catch, and most kids do that – but most parents try.At the Colegio Guadalupe, the colors were brown and white, and we had a pinafore for regular days, and a brown jacket for fancy ones. I don't remember (I probably didn't pay attention) anyone not wearing the right version. There are five girls in my family – I'm sure we had a lot of hand-me-downs. I think there was some system where uniforms that no longer fit were donated if they were in good shape.You have such a clear memory!

  2. I'm glad that you were able to understand that it was not your problem, but all those years having to face the school staff and other students must really have been painful.

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