The Way We Were – 1967-70

Part Thirty-five by Warren Thomas

It was during the last of my three years as principal in Forestburg that this particular blip on my screen occurred. I recall well the participants. A certain school rule was provocation sufficient to cause a rousing “tempest in a teapot”.
The particular issue was a school handbook section entitled “Dress Code”. In my years in Woonsocket, Mitchell and Seattle schools there was no such thing as a dress code. In Forestburg there was. In the two years prior to the kerfuffle under discussion, I don’t recall that anyone dusted off the rules about the dress code, nor did I as principal discuss the “thou shalt nots” in that document. I had looked at it at some point but everybody seemed law abiding, so I “let sleeping dogs lie” and went about teaching the three or four classes assigned to me. Occasionally, I did my principal thing, which usually included morning student assembly announcements before classes began.
I don’t recall how it came to my attention that a slender, dark-haired freshman was boldly, although quietly, thumbing her nose at a very clearly stated regulation in the dress code. But first, I should mention that dress codes in days of yore were almost without exception aimed at the fairer sex, those delightfully devious, those forever-provocative young ladies just discovering their awesome charms. Prohibitions against young men were usually non-existent. Simply put, if we keep the young ladies in line, the young men will behave as well. (I have no proof.)
In those days of the 1970s, Forestburg School District was content with its dress code (put in place before I arrived) aiming to keep minds, manners and morals properly focused. I didn’t necessarily agree or disagree with this particular regulation; it was part of the rules and it was my job to enforce the rules. And now “Ruby” was in no-no territory. How so? Well, believe it or not, Ruby had come to school several times wearing culottes, a singular garment with a plural name, and culottes were daringly against the rules. For those unacquainted with that ancient garment, it was simply a divided skirt consisting of a cloth panel down the middle, which in effect provided two leg openings. Older pictures of earlier girls’ basketball show culottes being worn for the freedom of movement and the modesty needed for the sport. In the ‘70s, those days of short, and sometimes short, short skirts, a girl wearing culottes was actually quite modest by standards of that day. No blowing up in the wind and no futile yanking down of those skimpy garments when sitting. Really, culottes were the epitome of modesty in those times of rising hemlines.
But for some forever-unknown reason, culottes had been put on the forbidden list. I could not imagine why. Dress codes universally were aimed at preserving modesty and eliminating distractions and in the 1970s, modesty had lessened and distractions had increased. To this day, I do not know why that girls’ garment was the subject of disdain and rejection. Except, of course, for Ruby.
So Ruby had the culottes and I had the rules. The two were bound to meet.
When it came to my attention that Ruby was continuing to wear the forbidden garment, I made an announcement to the student body without mentioning her name, thinking the contrary-minded young lady would get the hint without me embarrassing her. But, wouldn’t you know, that freshman girl wore culottes again in just a few days! What was going on? What impelled her to defy the clearly stated rule and the principal as well? The following day I called Ruby to the back of the science room where I had my “office”. I was now specific and pointed out that her culottes were unacceptable according to the dress code. She would need to change the next day to a dress or a skirt (Slacks and jeans were not in vogue as school garments). She was not defiant, just silent. Whatever was going on in her mind—or elsewhere—I could not determine, but in a very few days culottes adorned the slender, dark-haired freshman once again. Crunch time!
I had had sufficient experience to know the wisdom of not confronting Ruby alone in my office. This had become serious stuff. I wanted witnesses, one for Ruby and one for myself. I asked Ruby’s older sister in the senior class to be a witness on her behalf and Mr. Nelson from across the hallway on my behalf. Older sibling “Rachel” was quiet, dependable and one I was sure would take home an accurate account of our meeting. Mr. Donald Nelson, teacher of several ears, was nearby, also dependable and a supporter of school regulations. It did not occur to me at the time to wonder why Ruby had not asked her mother or father to visit with me about the offensive rule. Nor had I thought to call “Roseann”, Ruby’s mother. Most blips can be handled in-house with brief verbal exchanges.
After lunch the next day, I asked Mr. Nelson, Ruby and Rachel to meet me in the science room for a brief meeting. When they were assembled, I stated the reason for the meeting, saying that since Ruby continued to defy school policy, I proposed to her an announcement, which I would make before the student body the following morning about her defiance. I would say, “In light of the fact that Ruby continues to defy our long-standing prohibition against wearing culottes, I am granting special permission which will allow Ruby, and Ruby only, to wear culottes.” I knew that my threat carried the possible charge of favoritism if I had to make the announcement.
Mr. Nelson and Rachel, hearing my proposal, said nothing. Waiting for a response from the girl in front of me, tears began to run down her cheeks as she replied in a small, quavering voice, “That would make me look like a fool!” I responded that it probably would, but that her willful actions left me no other choice. I suggested that she go home, think about the situation and make her decision.
I could not have anticipated her response the next morning. Before classes began, she bounced into the science room, and with no formalities, Ruby exclaimed in an excited voice, “See, I have a skirt on!!” As comic strip Popeye, the sailor man used to say, “Well, blow me down!” The problem had suddenly disappeared! What, if anything, had gone on at home with mother, sister or dad, I could only guess. She was pleasant, entirely cooperative and, thanking her, I saw the blip on my screen vanish.
Or so I thought—until the upcoming school board meeting!
On near-by shores the storms may come
To batter, blow with fiercest blast.
What joy to see the sun again
When clouds roll on and disappear.

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