A school in Pretoria was early this week the site of a standoff between students and the administration over what style of trousers the learners should wear.
The pupils want their fairly shapeless, boring grey trousers tailored into form-fitting skinny trousers.
When you think that 40 years ago, students all over South Africa featured in protests that changed the socio-political landscape of the country when they rebelled against the Apartheid policies of Bantu Education, this tiff about fashion sensibilities sounds frivolous, to say the least.
Nevertheless, the cut of a pair of trousers seems to be the burning issue of the day for these pupils. The knee-jerk reaction of old fogeys such as myself might be to think the kids from Pretoria are spoiled, entitled brats. However, doing so would be to betray my ideals at roughly the same age.
Let me explain: The rule at my alma mater, St Mary’s School Nairobi, was that the uniform for students in the first and second forms was the same as that for primary school students, that is, short-sleeved khaki shirts and shorts, school sweater and tie from Monday to Thursday. On Fridays, we wore what was called “First Class School Uniform”. This special outfit replaced the shorts with long, grey pants, the khaki shirt with a plain white shirt and added a blazer with the school badge displayed on the breast pocket on top of the school sweater.
The school, which ran from Standard 1 to Form 6, had always had this rule. However, the temperatures in June 1983 were particularly cold, and my year mates and I decided we were not going to freeze and probably catch pneumonia just to conform. We got a few of our fellow students to get their parents to write notes asking for exemption from the short-trousers rule.
Although the school authorities were not amused, they allowed it for those who had notes, and the rest of us decided to follow suit, wapende wasipende. After all, they were hardly going to suspend the whole year.
When temperatures got warmer in the third term of school, the students decided to continue wearing the long pants. The school authorities were not pleased, but they chose to let it go.
Taking their cue from our lead, the following year’s second formers began their first term in long trousers, thus changing the way things had always been done.
So while ours was more about practicalities, such as warm adolescent legs, as opposed to the Pretoria school’s fashion sense rebellion, I can see how it matters to the pupils, and frankly, if I were advising the school authorities, I’d tell them to just accept and move on.
After all, the young people have yet to internalise a fact that should come to them with maturity, which is that one day they will “evaluate themselves by what they are on the inside instead of what they are wearing on the outside”, in the words of President Bill Clinton in a pro-school uniform speech from back in 1996.