Dad vs. the Dress Code

When I was in the sixth grade in San Marcos, my rabble- rousing father fought the rules that dictated what I could wear to school. My hip-huggers survived, but I almost didn't.

IN 1971, WHEN I WAS a sixth grader at Lamar Intermediate School, in San Marcos, my homeroom teacher handed her students a document titled “Student Dress and Grooming.” It had to do with skirt lengths and hair lengths, shirttails and socks. Girls, it said, should not wear sweatshirts or shorts. They should not wear pedal pushers, blue jeans, or jumpsuits. They could wear pantsuits and coordinated slack-suits, unless the garments were formfitting. I remember some discussion about what, exactly, a “coordinated slack-suit” was. Boys had similar restrictions and a number of others regarding facial hair. No one could wear sunglasses indoors unless they were prescribed by a doctor.

My teacher instructed us to take the paper home and have our parents sign it, and I recall feeling an odd sense of foreboding. I had enough to be concerned about without some strange set of rules in need of a parental signature. For one thing, I had recently returned from a year in Australia, where my father, William H. Crook, had been the U.S. ambassador. Pencil erasers were called “rubbers” there, and I’d made the mistake of calling them that on coming home, asking Jaimy Breihan, who sat next to me in Language Arts, if he would let me borrow his. I had not yet lived this down. I was so compulsive about making good grades that my parents had resorted to hauling me off to San Antonio for weekly visits with a psychiatrist. Printed painstakingly on the covers of my school notebooks were missives to myself: “Don’t worry about it.” “Do not worry.” “Please don’t worry.” I wore eyeglasses and braces and thought myself chic in a fringed faux-snakeskin skirt made of Naugahyde and a fringed leather purse that I wore strapped across my chest in the fashion of a Davy Crockett shot pouch.

I was not the coolest girl at Lamar, but I was not anonymous, as I lived in the biggest house in town and had political parents. My father had left the Baptist ministry to make a doomed run for Congress in East Texas on a civil rights platform in 1961. After serving a stint as president of the San Marcos Baptist Academy, he had teamed up with the Johnson administration as the national director of VISTA, and in 1969, after the election of Richard Nixon, had brought our family trailing back to San Marcos from Australia. Upon arriving home, he had grown his hair over his collar and purchased not one but two Lamborghini sports cars. The only thing I liked about the Lamborghinis was that the windows were tinted and I could not be seen from the outside.

“I’m not going to sign this,” my father said when I presented him with the dress code after dinner.

“My teacher said you have to.” The look on his face told me how ludicrous this argument would prove to be. There he sat, surveying me over his reading glasses, his thinning hair fanning over his ears in a length that would have been in violation of the code.

“What am I supposed to tell her?” I asked nervously.

“Tell her I won’t sign it. Tell her she can talk to me if she wants to.”

I doubted she would want to. I certainly didn’t. There were standards in a conversation with my father that you felt you had to live up to. “Stop beginning sentences with ‘I’m afraid,’” he used to tell me. “You use that phrase too much.”

My brother, Bill Junior, came dragging into the room about this time, bearing his own copy of the dress code from Owen Goodnight Junior High. He

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