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A Uniformly Trying Time


At age 6, I did not take kindly to a world ruled by conformity, rules and requirements. Most of all, I didn't like starched white shirts with collars and binding ties. To make it worse, I stubbornly refused to learn to knot a tie until I was 9 or 10.

In a world that seems to change every minute, one component stands still. It is the school uniform. It stands still. It knows no fashion. It is unshakable. The school uniform of the 1990s may well be the classroom attire of the 1950s.

My brother Eddie and I had fairly easy uniforms -- pants, shirt, tie and shoes that could be bought just about anywhere. We weren't crazy about the brown oxford shoes but we really had little to complain about. My four sisters wore navy-blue jumpers -- true uniforms that had to be bought from a single manufacturing source.

The day set aside for the annual buying of Catholic-school uniforms was the most dreaded shopping expedition of the year in my family. No one really liked the garb supplied by these scholastic tent makers.

It was serious business. To make matters worse, the shopping day was invariably a breezy and cloudless August day -- a perfect weather 10 -- when all you could imagine was the feel of sand under your feet and the temperature of the ocean's waves.

My four sisters all attended Notre Dame Prep School and had to get jumpers custom-made in the old garment-district near the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.

Today this is a neighborhood of stylishly converted apartments and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Some 30 years ago, it was a sooty truck route.

And yet, as annoying as this day could be, you wouldn't miss it for the world. By midmorning, tempers and tongues were out of control. It was a trial of torments.

Once, we were joined by another school family in hopes of making the misery a little more pleasant by expanding the company.

As usual, the fitting session dragged on, and before long all we got was a parking ticket on West Lombard Street -- all of $7 in 1967 Baltimore. In that era, parking citations were not as common to urban life as they are today.

The car belonged to a young Roland Park mother of four with superb political connections -- her father was one of Maryland's representatives in Congress. She was so outraged that the city police force would question the requirements of her day's task that she marched over to her father's office in the downtown federal building and told him to have the ticket taken care of immediately. Now. On the spot. Her Ford Falcon wagon should been given special consideration.

I think the distinguished officeholder quietly paid the fine out of his own pocket. Such was the power of indignation in his daughter's voice.

He knew it was far easier a task to pay a parking fine than it was to round up and outfit 10 young sprouts in proper Catholic-school garb.

On subsequent visits, my mother ruled out driving to the garment district. We either took a taxi directly there or caught a bus most of the way and hoofed it the rest of the way. My mother also wisely figured out the way to brighten this day was to finish up with a good lunch downtown, maybe at Hutzler's Quixie Restaurant.

Once the uniforms came home, they actually made life easier. There was no competition or talk of new fashions in school wear. There was no fashion. Washed, ironed and worn -- there was no further discussion.

And while all the Baltimore uniforms seemed the same, they were not. The Notre Dame navy blues were different from Seton's whites. Roland Park Country School's was not the same as Bryn Mawr's. Some schools had seasonal variants.

There were a few little requirements regarding Catholic-school uniforms. Parents had to have liquid white shoe polish for saddle shoes and brown paste for the oxfords.

There was also the Catholic-school system's lengthy rule book that explained clothing prohibitions and the levels of fines for being out of uniform. The laws are still on the books and enforced in many Catholic schools today. The parents love them, the students hate them initially, then embrace them when they themselves become parents.

My sister Ann recently described her very last hours under the yoke of a starched white collar.

It was late May, the last hours of school for seniors. Ann walked into the head nun's office to present her with a check for $231, all that was left in the piggy bank of the Ecology Club.

My sister glanced at the clock, felt the heat and casually loosened, then removed the choking white collar. The nun accepted the check and then said, "That will be 50 cents, you are out of uniform."

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