Freedom, belonging and school uniforms

(This piece first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Teacher Plus. It is being resurrected here to contribute to the emerging discussion around school uniforms after parents at a school in Mumbai objected to the introduction of colour-coded uniforms for boys and girls.)

When I was invited to write on the topic of school uniforms, what immediately came to mind was Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poem ‘Habitat’, published in her second book Where I Live. It begins thus:

I think I was nine/ when I told Sonal, Gunjan, Devki and Shalini/ on the school bus/ that I didn’t understand why we wore clothes/ except as a matter of seasonal cover.

This casual remark by the narrator of the poem got an instant response from her peers. There were clear signs of disapproval, and in minutes, she was excluded. She tried some damage control but was unable, she says, “to belong to the ranks of the immaculately attired.”

It is an exciting poem to spend an afternoon with, mulling over the metaphor of cloth and attire, inviting students to share what comes up in their minds as they read and re-read this poem. The narrator does not use the word ‘uniform’, and it might be worth exploring why, in keeping with the overall tone of the poem.

The last part of the poem gets philosophical, and it is extremely valuable to bring this up for discussion. It does not need to be explained. Students can work their way through this, and offer interpretations that may not even occur to our adult minds.

I’ve realised since/ that I’m not alone,/ that there are others/ who spend their lives trying/ to fit into clothes without/ a wrinkle, a crease, a doubt,/ hoping they’ll never get caught/ halfway between shedding/ a Jurassic hide and looking/ for a more muslin/ habitat of skin,/ a more limpid way of getting/ to the gist of themselves.

There is ample material for classroom conversation here, especially with teenage students who will be able to see effortlessly the connections between the words on the page and their own experiences. The teacher’s role here is to just introduce questions, and see what happens in the classroom as different students express their ideas. Some of the questions one could work with are:

*Why was the narrator excluded?

*Why do we try to fit in?

*What does it mean to get caught, in this context?

*How would you have responded to the narrator’s question if you were in that school bus?

*What does it mean to belong?

These questions could be discussed either with the whole class at one time, or in smaller groups. The second option will take up more time but offer a chance for deeper investigation, and also ensure that more students can participate.

This can be followed up with an activity where students are asked to work in groups, and design a new school uniform for themselves. Whether they choose to design unisex uniforms or separate ones for boys and girls is a decision that can be left to them. Each group has to be given a checklist of points they need to keep in mind:

*What are the students expected/allowed to wear? Example: kurta, t-shirt, formal shirt, tie, skirt, frock, trousers, salwar-kameez, ribbons, accessories, blazer, jacket, scarf, etc.

*What is the fabric that will be chosen? Think of factors such as comfort (texture, fitting and feeling of freedom), local weather conditions, durability of material, pricing, and justify your choice.

*Will the uniform be different for different age groups, or will it be the same for all students in the school?

*What colour(s) will be chosen for the uniform? What do these colours represent? Are they related in some way to the philosophy, vision or values of the school?

*Will students be allowed to wear items of clothing or accessories that express their religious identity? Why/why not?

Feel free to add other points to this list. The thought process behind the design is more important than the visual sketch they produce. Ask them to record their discussion, and present it in the form of a written statement accompanying their final sketch.

Now ask them to compare their final sketch with their current school uniform. They can use the checklist given earlier to think of points along which to compare.

After this is done, give them another design task. If your class time does not allow for this, ask them to do it in the next class or at home. They need to come up with a design for a school uniform for teachers. This should be exciting, and will allow you the opportunity to understand how students think about their teachers, their notions of what is proper and improper, or for want of a better word ‘teacher-like’.

All these activities need to be followed up with a debriefing where students are invited to offer feedback on the nature of the activity itself, on the group dynamics, on the thought process they were required to engage in, and any new learning they were happy to acquire.

To wrap up the session, you can go back to the poem mentioned earlier in the article, and ask students to share their final thoughts on it, after having gone through the rigmarole of specifying and adjudicating what people should wear. Encourage them to inhabit the body and mind of the narrator in the poem, and share how they feel.

Writer, educator and researcher

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