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 got the same response. He also got a lecture on the Fourteenth Amendment and individual rights. My father told him he would sign a dress code that had to do only with decency, but he wouldn’t sign this one.

It was the following week before I squared up the courage to give the sheet of paper back to my teacher, who had been asking about it. “It isn’t signed,” she remarked.

“I know. My father doesn’t think it’s … right.”

“He doesn’t think it’s right?”

“He doesn’t think it’s legal.”

Her annoyance hardened into a sudden coldness toward me. Apparently, in her estimation a good pupil had just turned rude and troublesome.

“It isn’t constitutional,” I said by way of further explanation, thinking I might clear things up. But I could tell from her response that the clearer things became, the less she was going to like them. She set the paper on her desk and told me to go sit down. After lunch I saw that it was gone. I hoped this would be the end of it.

But it was only the beginning. The dress code was about to upset the balance of the town and the school and, on a smaller scale, my own fledgling sense of identity. My father had just left a position where he was routinely addressed as “Your Excellency” or “Mr. Ambassador” and the family was cared for by a large staff that included an English butler, an Austrian chauffeur, and a number of Chinese cooks. Since arriving back on Texas soil, he had been restless and powerless.

Defeating the dress code in the San Marcos public schools became his job that year. I doubt he ever had a job he enjoyed more. He was happiest when he was fighting for a good political cause, and he saw the dress code as a petty bid for power by a moralistic superintendent. In Australia I had attended the Canberra Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, where the students wore uniforms and carried matching satchels and had their socks and fingernails inspected every morning. But that was different, my father explained. That was a private school, where we pledged allegiance to the queen of England every morning. That was not the United States of America.

I know now, of course, that the dress code was more about a fear of change than it was about clothing or hair. The hippie movement was creeping

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