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Keeping up appearances

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I could hardly believe my ears when I heard that the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board has established a strict dress code for teachers. All I can say is, "It's about time." As a student, I didn't think I would ever live to see the day when a bold administration would finally have the moxie to tackle the problem of teacher appearance.

I think back to Mr. Phillips, my eighth-grade math teacher. He was a magician with algebra, and one day he pretty much saved my life by breaking up a fight I had picked with a much larger classmate. But he had this tie. A big, brown, paisley quilt of a thing he wore daily, presumably to protect his tan, short-sleeved shirt from cigarette ashes. I can't prove it, but I think that several of my friends would never have dropped acid if they hadn't been forced to stare at that tie day in and day out.

Then there was my 10th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Mulherin. Sure, she squired our writing team to victory at the city competition, but what about her hair? A friend of mine, a brilliant writer and insightful critic, flunked because, when she was supposed to be analyzing the use of allegory in A Pilgrim's Progress, she was instead obsessed with the physical impossibility of Mrs. Mulherin's shockingly jet-black locks. Was that a wig? A dye job? A freak of genetics? I long ago lost track of my friend, but the last time I heard from her she was working as a copy writer at Clairol, composing product instructions.

So when the Winston Salem/Forsyth County school board announced their crackdown on teacher appearance I wanted to stand up and applaud. At least in one corner of one state, a handful of fortunate children will be spared the sort of trauma I endured during my education. To prove that they mean business, the board members plan to fire an educator for the offense of body piercing.

I don't remember any of my teachers wearing nose studs, but that's really been a phenomenon of my generation. As people my age and younger have graduated and sought out teaching jobs, they have inevitably brought with them their eyebrow rings, tongue barbells, and tattoos. I can just see their mesmerized students, unable to take a single note because of the obsessive thought, "Damn, that must have hurt!" This sort of thing can't be allowed.

According to a friend of mine who designs Web pages in San Francisco, the high-tech industries desperately need pierced, tattooed, educated young workers. Since our schools are preparing students so poorly for the new economy, tech firms have to import skilled employees from other countries. At least in Forsyth County, the handful of talented young people who have committed themselves to challenging and underpaid careers in education will be forced back to the billion-dollar Internet start-ups where they belong.

Of course, one has to ask, who will take their places when they leave? I have every confidence that Winston-Salem's school board has that one figured out. Since they only want to employ teachers who look and dress like themselves, I have to assume that hordes of their largely white, affluent neighbors are prepared to step into the breach and take bottom-rung teaching jobs with lousy pay. I just hope, for the children's sake, that all of them keep their natural hair color.

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