Thursday, December 02, 2004

Black Nail Polish

My principal yelled at an eighth grade girl yesterday for wearing black nail polish, and told her to take it off and not wear it to school again. Naturally, Lindy - who is very conscientious and thoughtful and a good student, if that makes a difference - got upset and complained to the other students, who were also upset. "This time she's gone too far!" But Lindy replied, "Yeah, you're right, but I think this is one of those battles that's just not worth fighting. So I think this student may have been more mature than my principal...

There is a major disagreement brewing among the staff about our standards of dress and behavior; the black nail polish is just the latest example. Basically, the administration wants to be much, much stricter than the rest of the staff about how the kids travel in the halls, when they are expected to be quiet and when they can talk a little, and what they can and cannot wear. And it's not like any of us want chaos or fail to address behavior problems when we see them. Lately it just seems like Ms. Dean and Ms. Principal see problems where no one else does! And their method of dealing with it seems to be to ask us to discuss how we are going to deal with behavior, and then get very defensive when we come up with anything except their own standard. Over the last few years, I have participated in any number of meetings where Ms. Principal made the rest of us feel like "if you're not with me, you're against me and have no standards and are fine with the kids being awful."

Now, I do my best to enforce whatever standard we agree upon as a staff, even if it is somewhat different from my own ideas; that's what makes a school work, a shared standard of behavior. But at this point, I would say that the consensus among adults in the school is that some talking in the halls is okay, lines are unnecessary when the kids are in our part of the building, and that we will deal with individual transgressions as they happen. I think most of us would agree that black nail polish is not a problem. Yet I am fairly sure that even after our next "discussion," we are going to find ourselves enforcing a standard that only two or three people really believe in. And that is a recipe, in the long term, for our organization to fall apart, especially if we feel intimidated into going along with the stricter standard.

The black nail polish incident got me thinking about my own standards, though. Many of my friends were goths in high school, and I knew them to be some of the nicest, smartest, most creative kids in the school - and top students - so a little black nail polish doesn't bother me. I see it as a pretty average way of testing different identities, which is a huge part of normal development in this age group. Since our kids wear uniforms, they have to be a little creative in finding ways to express their individuality, and I see it as both harmful and pointless to try to suppress every single one of those forms of expression.

It occurred to me, however, that although I'm fine with black nail polish, I'm not at all okay with twelve-year-olds coming to school with inch-long nails painted like peacock feathers. Is that really different from black nail polish? If I would ban one and not the other, I'd better be able to justify the distinction. Otherwise, it would seem to be cultural bias. Ditto for large chains and rosaries, which the boys have been wearing and I have been asking them to put under their shirts. In the end, I realized that the long, flamboyant manicures represent growing up too fast to me, while black nail polish represents experimenting with identity. And I do think it's reasonable to be against the first and for the second. I'm on the fence about the chains and beads.

My final realization was that Ms. Principal may have some perfectly legitimate reason to ban blak nail polish, and if so, she should go right ahead. But she needs to do it in a way that doesn't alienate our students. Yelling at Lindy only whipped up a whole group of fundamentally good kids. Lindy is smart and reasonable, and if Ms. Principal had discussed the nail polish issue with her, she probably would have grumbled a bit but agreed to take it off.

This may seem like a small thing, but it's been circling around and around in my mind for a couple of days. It's so important for schools to be able to justify the standards we set, make sure they are fair and reasonable, and then enforce them in a way that helps the students see the reasoning behind them rather than just seeing one more rule imposed by adults.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, first off, you have a ton of trash comments. This is not one. I enjoyed reading this post. I used to wear a lot of darker colored nail polish too. So, I guess that's all I wanted to say?


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