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Dressing Up

by Carol Michaels Foresta

The next day, Miguel's science teacher asked him to leave class. Miguel came to my office and was pretty angry about what happened in class. According to Miguel, some of the boys refused to work with him on a group assignment. The teacher lost patience with the situation and asked Miguel to leave the class. Based on our conversation, I decided to call an emergency staff meeting directly after school in the library.

There were 27 teachers and ten members of support staff, including student teachers, school aides, and secretaries, seated at three p.m. for our community meeting. I began the meeting by talking about students' rights. I thought it was important that everyone understood that in a school dedicated to developing activist citizens in a democracy, the rights of students were inviolable. This meant that if one of our most fragile students/citizens was unsafe, we were all unsafe. I talked about how it was critical that Miguel not be asked to leave any class merely because his dress provided a distraction.

We had an interesting meeting. Some staff members felt we should call Miguel's mother and inform her about how he was dressing. We discussed whether we would be willing to take responsibility for finding Miguel a place to live if his mother threw him out of the house. We also questioned whether we could adequately physically protect Miguel if other members of his family physically attacked him. We agreed that we did not have the resources to support Miguel, to provide him with shelter and the love and nurturing that he could get from his parents and other members of his family.

Finally, we talked about the Civil Rights Movement and what lessons were to be learned when individuals were the first to challenge the values of a community. Some African-American teachers felt that this situation was not analogous. Others felt there were direct parallels. I looked around the room and noted that of the 37 people seated in the room, 20 of them were women. Of the 20 women, not one was wearing a dress or skirt. I remembered a time not too long ago when female teachers were not allowed to wear pants to school. I wondered at the kind of courage it took women to move together to force that systemic change. That simple desire to be able to be guided by your own sense of propriety rather than by societal values meant that some individuals had to create a small earthquake in the school system.

In the end, the teacher who expelled Miguel from class asked if I was ordering teachers not to do so. I said I was, in order to protect Miguel's rights. But I felt if the adults in our community showed real support for Miguel and his struggle to express himself, it would not be necessary to exclude anyone. Someone asked how he could show Miguel he supported him. I replied somewhat flippantly, "Well, perhaps some of the men here could wear a dress to school; after all, every woman in the room is wearing pants!"

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