Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Think of today’s high school students locked in pandemic purgatory. I’m guessing they would find it quaint to learn the struggles of my classmates a half-century ago.

Documents recently surfaced by a friend that recalled my teen years’ fixation with: dress codes. Fights over which became highly political.
In 1969-70, the Vietnam War was raging. Students were threatening adult authority by demanding new political freedoms and education reforms. “SDS Activity Surfaces in County High School” warned the Northern Virginia Sun in April 1969, a reference to pamphlets dropped off at Washington-Lee (now Liberty) High School by the radical Students for a Democratic Society.

A countywide “Arlington Student Coalition” in spring 1970 submitted demands to the school board. It asked that administrators respect rights such as “the freedom to form organizations, freedom from censorship of school publications and P.A. announcements, freedom to distribute noncommercial literature, freedom to invite speakers to address school groups, freedom to wear armbands, buttons and other accoutrements of self-expression.” Also: “the right to dress in a manner suitable to the individual.”

At Yorktown High School, demands expanded to the right to leave campus for lunch, a smoking court, elimination of hall passes and abolishing final exams.

Such was the context in which the dress code battle was waged, in an era of lengthening male hair, girls shifting from Villager dresses to pants, and boys abandoning Weejuns and buttoned shirts for jeans and Army jackets.

Mary Vandevanter of the class of ’70 recalls being sent home by an administrator twice for wearing culottes. Classmate Murr Brewster, now a blogger, remembers the assistant principal calling her in for bra-lessness, instructing that “the flopping of the breasts against the thoracic cavity causes cancer.”

My own clash with authority stemmed from my illegal habit of wearing a fedora hat indoors (mimicking an old-fashioned reporter).

But in spring 1969, Principal W. Ralph Kier, following consultations with faculty, parents and, yes, students, loosened the dress code. In reaction, conservative parents led by Wesley McDonald and Dee Mitchell (both parents of my friends) formed the Concerned Parents Association.

It decried the “social and political activism of the currently fashionable ‘youth rebellion’” at the expense of “academic excellence in responsible education,” their executive committee wrote in a Sun op-ed. They accused student activists of being funded “outside the county.” More ominously, they said “the pedants” among Yorktown’s teachers “should remember that the majority of the parents who send their children to Yorktown are college-trained, and many are more learned in professions and occupations than the average teacher.”

They sought a dress code “that sets forth standards of decency, cleanliness and taste.”

One unnamed faculty member wrote to the Sun expressing bewilderment that “the relaxing of the dress code at Yorktown seems to be the focal point of more parental unrest and dissent than any other educational change in recent memory.” She acknowledged that “there were a few who abused the new code…But when the newness had worn off, the vast majority of students dressed modestly and neatly,” she said. “Students have decided that fancy dress was no longer de rigeur, in order that their attention could be centered on areas of more vital concern — like what does it mean to be a human being in this troubled age?”

Kind of like today’s pandemic-era high schoolers, online and dressed in sweats.

Hidden from street view behind St. Andrews Episcopal Church lies the Garden of Hope.

Saturday mornings you can find nine or 10 socially distanced and face-masked volunteers from that church at Lorcom Lane and Military Rd., the neighborhood and Marymount University. I watched them recently tending crops of kale, cabbage, collards, radishes, beats, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans and carrots. All for local food banks.

The 14-year-old program so far in 2020 has donated 1,942 lbs. of organically grown produce, I’m told by participating green thumb Ted Edwards. Their biggest challenge: hungry deer. The volunteers solved it by building a 10-foot fence.