Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Back to School Cool

I happened to be stopped at a red light in front of a high school the other day just as the students were heading home for the day. I couldn’t help but notice that just about every one of them was carrying a backpack.

The only people who carried backpacks back when I was in high school were hikers. We were forced to lug all of our books in our arms, which involved a lot of juggling and strategic balancing. That’s why most of us girls tried to find guys who would carry our books home for us. If that meant flirting with the school’s biggest nerd, then we shamelessly did it, all for the preservation of our dainty, feminine arms.

As I continued to sit at the red light, I also noticed that the backpack-carrying kids, both male and female, were wearing shorts.

I couldn’t help but think back to my first day of high school and how happy I would have been if I could have worn shorts…which, considering that they were on the school’s “forbidden apparel, per penalty of death” list, would have resulted in my immediate expulsion.

I still vividly recall the outfit I wore on my first day of high school. Even though the temperature was about 80 degrees in the shade, there I stood in my red-and-green-plaid woolen skirt, green cable-knit sweater, green knee socks and black loafers. And for a finishing touch, I wore a silver neck-chain that had a replica of a covered bridge hanging from it (it was a souvenir gift from Vermont).

By eleven o’clock that morning, I nearly needed CPR for heat prostration.

There seemed to be standard fashion rules back in those days. You never wore white shoes or white pants after Labor Day, and back-to-school clothes had to be warm. That meant that if you were a female, you wore a lot of wool. And if you were a male, you wore corduroy. So many guys wore corduroy pants the first week of school, all of the swishing noises they made when they walked through the hallways made the place sound like a wind tunnel.

My problem was that wool made me itch worse than if I’d taken a naked swan dive into a pile of poison ivy. In fact, back when I was in kindergarten and wore a wool sweater to school one day, I developed such an itchy rash from it, the school nurse sent me home because she thought I had the measles…and I wasn’t about to argue with anyone who insisted that I take a day off from school.

But in high school, because wool skirts were all the rage, I bit the bullet and wore them anyway. After all, most of the girls were wearing stylish plaid wraparound wool skirts that fastened in the front with a big brass safety pin, and I didn’t want to deprive myself of wearing something so chic just because it made me want to claw off several layers of skin. Besides that, I discovered that if I wore two or three slips underneath the skirts, I could keep the itch down to a tolerable level.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of class-time sitting in sweat-soaked underwear.

“Gee, I didn’t expect it to be so hot in September,” my mom said on my first day of high school (back before global warming, when Septembers usually were pretty chilly). “Why don’t you wear that pretty cotton flowered dress you wore to Douglas’s wedding?”

“Cotton? Flowers?” I was appalled at the mere suggestion. “It’s practically fall! Everyone will be wearing wool.”

“You’ll sweat, sitting in wool all day,” my mother said. “You want to end up with diaper rash, like babies get?”

I didn’t care about diaper rash. My new back-to-school wardrobe consisted of wool skirts and matching sweaters, and I fully intended to show them off…even at the risk of self-combusting.

I’m pretty sure that the reason why the back-to-school clothes nowadays feature shorts and lightweight gauze tops is because in the past (back when most school clothes looked as if they’d been made for kids in Siberia) the students ended up being too hot, itchy and lumpy to concentrate on their schoolwork.

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