Most of my teaching is, more or less, made up of repackaged lessons taught to me when I was a student at The Heights. This is especially true of lessons on character and virtue and other things of the sort; I think I learned enough about Roman history and poetic allegory in college to teach them well, but about temperance or magnanimity? Those are things I learned only at The Heights.
In the Lower School, one of the ways we teach these sorts of virtues is by emphasizing that the boys act like gentlemen, and particularly Christian gentlemen. Of course, this sort of aspirational logic in correction (for example, “you acted in such a way, but instead you should want to act in another way, since that’s how Christian gentlemen act”) is more adhesive with third graders than with eighth or ninth graders. For this reason, gentlemanliness must be cultivated delicately and holistically.
The most prolific, and for that matter the most important form of this moral education involves instruction about the formation of character – growing in personal virtues, the treatment of others, cultivating our relationship with God. But there are also those ancillary characteristics of a gentleman which we place due emphasis on – how we groom ourselves, maintaining order in our personal spaces, how we speak, and how we dress. These sorts of things are imperative for the patina of a Christian gentleman, and accordingly, we must not neglect them.
Learning to Dress Well
I host the “GQ Award” for my class every Tuesday. It’s an old Sellier holdover, a contest for the best-dressed student, something I partook in as a contestant countless times in Mr. Sellier’s sixth grade class. And while the actual GQ Magazine is rather dubious in content, it is an appropriate nomenclature for the award by merit of the first initial. My students know this, at least, and they know that their goal on Tuesday afternoons is to present themselves as such – gentlemen, ready for my examination.
The dress code in the lower school is an interesting game of its own right, and notably interesting for parents. I can only imagine how a mother must feel to drop her son off for school in a freshly cleaned Lands-End shirt only to have him return looking like some sort of Dickensian street urchin. This raises a question of why we have a dress-code at all for lower schoolers, and what reason on earth could possibly justify a boy wearing a tie, of all things, when his day’s agenda includes tackle football, a short shift at the rock-trading post, and of course, digging. It’s certainly not the practical choice, nor is it the most convenient one – but it is the most appropriate for our efforts.
Molding Character Inside and Out
As we try to mold the characters of these boys, they must feel, and look, like they are up to the task. It is tremendously helpful for them to believe that they are getting ready, just like dad or mom, to head into their “job”, which is to learn (this is even more applicable to high schoolers.) The dress code inspires a greater sense of responsibility and maturity – when a boy gets ready for school in the morning and ties his tie, there is an indescribable sense of value that is instilled in him by sartorial gravity – as he leaves his parents and his siblings for the day, he in essence boasts: I am off to do something important today.
The GQ award is conveniently hosted right after the boys change back into their dress code from their gym clothes. The reason for this is twofold – first, to prove that they are able to dress and assemble themselves, without help, and second, to emphasize the importance of order in preparation. If a boy fails to fold his clothes properly before gym, they will wrinkle, and his chances at the GQ award are slim. Alternatively, if he folds them and puts them away carefully, not only will his clothes not be wrinkled, but he will have that extra time saved later to check his tie knot, make sure his shirt is tucked in all the way around, fasten his lapels, etc. The GQ award is rarely, if ever, based on who has the “nicer” clothing. In this way, it is similar to fashion in the real world – it’s not about where you get your clothes, but how you wear them.
Presenting Ourselves and Becoming Presentable
The GQ award has taught my class to work with what they have, matching the colors and pairing the patterns that they have available to them at home. Most importantly, they know that even the most well-dressed of students can be eliminated by an untucked shirt or a forgotten belt. I’ve also taught them the importance of dressing for the occasion – a well-paired sweater is indeed fashionable, but it’s not appropriate when the weather is hot and humid. Additionally, my emphasis on dressing for the occasion emphasizes to the boys that the occasion for their shared dress code is, of course, school – an enduring reminder of the responsibility we entrust to them.
When the great Atticus Finch fails in his defense of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee tells us that he “was standing under the street light looking as though nothing had happened: his vest was buttoned, his collar and tie were neatly in place, his watch-chain glistened, he was his impassive self again.” In the face of injustice and on the heels of failure, one of American literature’s most notable gentlemen was not caught with his tie out of place. This is the spirit we hope to engender in the boys at The Heights. A straightened tie is, for our purposes, the symbol of a standing soldier and a ready learner. How we choose to represent ourselves to the world is most of how the world will perceive us, and dressing seriously is a grand step in being taken seriously. For the Christian gentleman’s purposes, an apostolate of virtue is most readily received when it is well-dressed.