Editor’s note: Mr. Michael J. Connolly grew up in Essex, MA and is now a professor of history in Indiana. Mr. Connolly is a regular contributor to Imaginative Conservative as well.
His piece was a very timely submission, as I have evolved too with civility and how to reinforce it here. As I enter my fourth year with the site, I have developed a vision for civility here and on the FB group that simply does not allow anymore for personal references unless they are positive. If you can’t make your point without insulting the person you are making your point to, well, then, you can’t make your point. Connolly notes in his piece that his alma mater, St. John’s Prep, has not relaxed their dress code but has in fact, in the period since his graduation, “tightened” it. I hope to have done the same tightening with regard to civility and respect and inclusion here at Ivy-Style.
In the autumn of 1985, I began my first semester at St. John’s Prep in Massachusetts, a private Catholic school on Boston’s North Shore. We were known as “Preppies” in those days and attending St. John’s carried tremendous social cachet. Upon hearing you attended the Prep, some would raise their eyebrows and say, “That’s a wonderful school,” while others would reply with bitter sarcasm, “Oh, the Prep, aren’t you fancy.” God, how I relished that reaction. Yet, the transition from public school to the Prep was not an easy one. You left behind childhood friends, most of whom you never saw again, and entered a Lord of the Flies sorting ritual, with strangers becoming friends (or not) and forming new cliques. Sociology dissertations could be written on the ordeal.
When my mother dropped me off on the first day, I left the car with a lump in my throat with little sense of where to go. In Xavier Hall, whose magnificent 1911 spire towers over campus and symbolizes the school, lost freshmen like me wandered the hallways anxiously searching for their first period classrooms. Our daze united us, while the more experienced upper-classmen marched the corridors with precision. At least, it should have united us. For I was a fourteen-year-old apart. On my feet, I wore sneakers.
In those days, St. John’s had a basic but strict dress code – shirts with collars, no jeans, and no sneakers – enforced by the “Dean of Discipline,” a title later softened to the anodyne “Dean of Students.” I wandered the first-floor (I recall the moment vividly) and coming at me was the Dean. He made no eye contact but was instead (with arms clasped behind his back) glaring at my feet. I didn’t understand at first. “What are those?” he asked me firmly. Then, as we say in New England, “Light dawns on Marblehead” and I looked down in horror. In our nervous hurry to prepare me for Day One, my parents and I forgot the sneakers edict. Shirt and pants accorded with the dress code, but not the shoes. I must have turned purple with embarrassment and he mercifully directed me to change my ways for tomorrow. It was a mistake I never repeated.
The Prep dress code once required students to wear jacket and tie but was dropped in 1975 for the shirt and shoe policy I experienced. The liberalized code allowed for a wide diversity of expression from the sublime to the preppie super spectacular. Most of us donned the informal Ivy look of striped and solid Oxford button-downs and khaki pants, tied together with London Fog jackets and crew neck sweaters. We must have floated Sebago, Sperry, and Dexter upon oceans of profits, as it seemed everyone wore boat shoes even in winter. We were a Sebago family and I wore through a pair every year. A select few embraced the Reagan Era preppie zeitgeist with gusto. I recall seeing a classmate in the library with Kelly green pants, pink polo, and navy-blue sweater around his neck, tied together with Bass Weejuns (no socks, of course). The memory still sears my retinas thirty-eight years later.
Some rebelled against the code. The open insurrectionists attempted black jeans or even an occasional collarless shirt, but the teachers reported them and the Dean hauled an unfortunate few to his office for a “talking to” that often ended in tears. The more sophisticated objectors wore leather jackets or fixed their hair like Flock of Seagulls or in a mohawk, providing an odd contrast with their other attire. All this was tolerated, if scorned. Curiously, the secular male teachers (the older Xaverian Brothers wore black cassocks) who rounded up code scofflaws seldom set memorable stylistic examples. They mainly wore workmanlike blue and brown suits, white shirts with standard straight ties, perhaps a blue blazer or two.
Sometimes, school events necessitated a jacket and tie – or more accurately, this was “expected.” When I participated in “Mock Trial” exercises, I naïvely didn’t understand these expectations and arrived in a maroon-stripped OCBD and matching 1980s square-ended maroon knit tie. Everyone else wore the “Uniform” of blue blazer, white or blue OCBD with red tie, khakis, and leather shoes. I recall the pitying look on my teacher’s face upon witnessing my outfit, holding back comments lest he offend. Upon discovery, however, my mother was appalled (embarrassed might be more accurate) and at our next trial meeting I arrived in uniform like my classmates.
The dress code jolt faded with time and how we dressed became second-nature. Most students didn’t need to be told anymore, a result the school intended. You wore boat shoes or loafers and an OCBD, even on weekends away from school and out came the Uniform for more formal occasions without a second thought. It’s what you did. We developed the unconscious habits of dress that remain with us today. Preparatory school prepared us academically for college but also personally in how we presented ourselves to the world.
The late P. M. Forni in Choosing Civility wrote how good manners signal a basic awareness of other people’s existence: “Courtesy, politeness, manners, and civility are all, in essence, forms of awareness. Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness. Civility is a form of goodness; it is a gracious goodness.” As a kind of civility, our Ivy-infused school dress code forced us to reassess the meaning of “self-expression,” orienting it away from a narcissistic “doing as one likes” to a thoughtful consideration of situation, obligation, and the presence of others. The key word here is “restraint,” not in squelching self-expression but maturely balancing social expectations with the self. “The unruly, the brazen, and the reckless give self-expression a bad name,” Forni warned. “Going through life under the sway of unchecked impulses may count as self-expression, but it is irresponsible self-indulgence – and painful collisions are sure to ensue.” The Prep taught us to discipline ourselves in study and in dress, and the Uniform became the outward symbol of a disciplined and mature mind.
Flipping through the current St. John’s Prep student handbook, I’m delighted to see the school tightened its dress code since my time. As much as high learning expectations promote “mutual respect and personal growth” in students, the handbook states, a dress code also “shows a measure of commitment to the community and builds a sense of common mission.” Shirts must be solid or striped OCBDs or solid polos, always tucked in and buttoned, and pants must be of solid color and in good repair. Hoodies are forbidden. Black or brown leather shoes and socks are required. Hair must be trimmed neatly, in its natural color, and never touch the collar. Shirt and ties are always worn at formal school occasions. From photos I’ve seen of recent students in their blue and white school ties, the Prep struck the right balance between self-expression and self-control.
In a fit of nostalgia, I picked up a pair of old Sebago Docksiders recently and the simple act of seeing them on my feet triggered a wave of memories. Walking across the leafy Prep campus on New England autumn days, squeaking through the hallways after a rain, chatting with friends about our college plans in the green grass of Spring senior year. Alas, my feet now hurt. Much like home, I guess you can’t go back to school again.
- Michael J. Connolly