I attended Rhea County High School. I'm a Rhea County Golden Eagle. And when I go back to teach there and tell the students that I've been where they are, I mean it. Well, except for the last time I was there. We didn't have our own classroom, so we met in the boys locker room. I never went there in high school.
     I think it means a lot to those students to know that I walked the same halls. Had some of the same teachers. Sat in the same desks. In some cases, had the same books. I know what it is like to grow up in Rhea County. I know what it's like to want to leave this place. To just get out.
     The students always question how old I am after I tell them I'm an RCHS alum. Most expect I'm just a recent grad, and are quite surprised when I disclose that I actually graduated in 2002, making me 29. I suppose I should be flattered when the students don't believe me, even having to prove my age with my driver's license one time.
     But some things have definitely changed since my time at RCHS. The carpet in the halls is gone, lunch is totally awesome and some of my favorite teachers are gone. But, the biggest difference? The absence of the dress code.
     When I was in high school, we had a really strict dress code. Coming off of events like Columbine and several similar attacks, school districts around the US responded in a number of ways. Metal detectors, zero tolerance policies and dress codes were put into action in an attempt to prevent additional incidents.
     Our dress code mirrored a uniform. Solid color shirts with a collar. Tucked in, with a belt. Pants with no more than 5 pockets. No holes. No fraying. No open toed shoes. Only blue jeans or khakis allowed. Dresses? Only if they had a collar. Logos? Only if smaller than a credit card. And it was enforced. Seriously.
     I can remember that not having a belt meant getting a piece of rope from the office to tie around your pants. Repeated offenses meant in-school suspension. Teachers checked. We knew what was expected.
     As the years passed, the rules became a little more relaxed. The second year brought the welcoming distinction of stripes. The third year? Open-toed shoes AS LONG AS they had a back, and patterned shirts. The collar and belt requirements remained.
     This dress code did not survive much longer after I graduated. I remember returning to RCHS a few years later, and being stunned at the attire. Even now, students walk the halls in holey pants and shirts, pajamas, house shoes, stilettos, trench coats, mini skirts, crude T-shirts, bunny costumes (yeah, that one confused me too), maternity clothes, skin tight dresses, leggings as pants, tattoos, piercings, red hair, pink hair, purple hair, no hair.
     My first response was probably that of others that knew the confines of primary colors and collars. That is NOT fair. Then, I became disgusted, deciding that it looked so much sloppier. Shouldn't these kids be preparing for the real world? Are they going to wear pajamas everywhere they go (with the recent introduction of Pajama Jeans, that is now an acceptable option. Don't know what Pajama Jeans are? Google it. It will change your life.)?
     But, as I was teaching just a few months ago at Bledsoe County High School, something clicked for me. I have never had the self confidence to wear what I wanted, even if it was pajamas. And I welcomed the dress code because it felt safe. I looked ridiculous in my clothes because of the dress code. Not because I just looked ridiculous.
     When I talk to the students about the messages of the media, I shoot straight with them. I watch commercials and think, "Wow, if I used that shampoo, I would have gorgeous hair." If I bought those clothes I would be trendy. If I owned that steam mop, my bathroom would be cleaner. If, If, IF.
     I have struggled for years about the way I look. About being too short. Too pudgy. About having too much acne, frizzy hair, or lame shoes. And I bought into the idea that stuff would change that. And really, my attitude was what needed changing.
     And all of a sudden, I started to respect some of those girls that wear their pajamas to school. Maybe there was even a little envy. Because for the hours that I spent standing in front of a mirror perfecting my make-up (which only seemed to draw more attention to the zits), and the embarrassment I felt over the tags in my clothes, these girls simply don't care. I'm not talking about the extreme of not caring where the clothes are dirty or ripped or the kid hasn't showered. But the comfort of knowing who they are, and what they stand for, and knowing that it isn't determined by what they were or how they look. They don't care where Miley Cyrus shops, or what designer label Vanessa Hudgens is wearing. They don't care that they didn't put make-up on this morning, because they had basketball practice and it is more important to perfect a skill than perfecting smoky eyes.
     I'm not saying that all the kids were appropriate. There was a number of students that were dressed in things that aren't appropriate for the club scene. But the majority of the girls were comfortable. Not only in their clothes. But in their own skin. And I was encouraged. 
     So many of our teens are living the way I did. Finding their value in their physical appearance. And, for me, this didn't change after high school. It is something  I still struggle with. Daily. But if some are no longer accepting that message, I have hope that one day, they will no longer accept the message of sex without consequences. The message of self interest. The message of selfishness. And we can move on. Because ultimately, girls shouldn't be valued according to the standards of Lil Wayne. Boys shouldn't be seen as men based on their number of partners.
     And pajamas shouldn't look like jeans.