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Lessons uniformly learned

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By MARLENE SOKOL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 2, 2002

TAMPA -- Waters Avenue and Hanley Road. The last place you want to be at rush hour.

While the kids are splashing and frolicking at camp, I'm fighting for parking at a Beall's department store.

I'm at this downmarket strip center, as instructed, for uniforms. The school made them mandatory this year, to no shortage of grumbling around the neighborhood.

That includes my house, where we're scratching our heads and wondering when the generals overthrew the government.

People keep trying to convince us uniforms will "save us money." Not likely, what with all the hand-me-down clothing my children receive. Which does not entail trips to Town 'N Country. Where I'm looking at $10 per shirt, easy.

But somebody has to be the grownup here, and I suppose it's me, by default. Gathering up my purse and car keys, I resolve to find the silver lining. The "teachable moment," as the experts say.

Respect authority.

That's what uniforms will teach my children.

Being a product of the 1970s, I choke on the words.

But rules are rules. Civilization cannot survive anarchy. I'm not grooming my kids for the military, but you never know. Certainly, they'll have to adapt to high school and college and corporate America.

The shirts are not $10. They're $11.99! The white ones look dirty, and they've never been worn.

Teachable moment. Teachable moment.

Looks don't matter.

Another good lesson, although again, we're big hypocrites. My husband takes forever to get dressed. I live at the gym. Who are we fooling?

Children, on the other hand, do not see fat or thin. They do not see race. They do not differentiate between the subsidized apartment and the executive home. They judge not what car I drive, or who colors my hair.

Maybe they should put us in uniforms!

But it sounds good, so we'll go with it. Uniforms teach us that looks don't matter.

A credit card application beckons at the check-out counter. Save 10 percent today! Could it be? I scribble furiously as the cashier waits on a confused customer.

She'll have to run my application through the office, she tells me. By now the kids are home from camp. My precious evening is slipping away.

Then the cashier spots the uniforms. "You won't save on these," she says. "Uniforms are never on sale."

So we tear up the application, and I'm $98 lighter when I walk out the door.

Deal with it.

That is, perhaps, the most salient lesson about school uniforms. But while I can speak these words sincerely, they translate hardest to the Radio Disney set.

Children don't deal with things. They rail, they rage, they make everything high drama.

Dealing with things is a skill beaten into us over years of drudgery and disappointment and, sometimes, real tragedy. Deal with it when a friend is rude. Deal with it when the restaurant gets your order wrong. Deal with it and, if it doesn't kill you, get on with your life.

I'm armed for battle as I pull into the driveway. My husband took the mail in, and I know it's all bills. The kids are slurping the last of their spaghetti. I hose them down and break out the Beall's bag.

"A skort," my daughter cries, delighted at the double-knit garment. She pulls it on, tops it with a monogrammed shirt, then races off to preen for her father.

I'll admit it. Part of me liked it when she was kicking up a fuss.

But a bigger part is happy to open the mail in peace.

Marlene Sokol is the Times' Carrollwood bureau chief.

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