Turns out my kid’s preschool has rules. Not just your usual “Refrain from biting others, bringing allergens in your lunchbox and showing up with infectious diseases.”
It’s dress code rules.
Disney and fantasy characters are prohibited, since the preschool is based on the principles of Maria Montessori, a physician and educator, who believed children until the age of six have an absorbent mind, unable to discern between concrete and abstract (not to be confused with creativity or imagination). Jewelry and flashing lights on shoes are not permitted, to avoid distractions.
Learning this sounded familiar and Soviet. As in, “Eww, Soviet,” not “Yay, Yuri Gagarin, first man in space!” Soviet.
I got flashbacks to my old uniform: brown wool dresses with black aprons (or white aprons for major holidays like May Day) for girls and blue woolen suits for boys. Permissible swag included red star-shaped pins and red kerchiefs, and lace cuffs and collars.
Students would be sent home for showing up without communist regalia. Girls would be kicked out of class for having their hair down or for applying lipstick instead of memorizing Mendeleev’s table of elements, so they could restore themselves to plain-faced decency in the little girls’ room. “What’s this, Goldilocks Beauty Salon?” the teacher sneered. And everyone laughed, secretly jealous.
While by no means a fan of uniformity, I have a certain level of comfort with it. Ask Russian speakers why they believe what they believe, and they’ll likely reference something about oppression or scarcity from their days of yore.
Even after all these years as an American, I still sometimes feel like Borat during his supermarket visit.
(The authority-compliant mentality of some Soviet expats extends into politics, as evidenced in this frightening New Republic piece.)
Anyway, at back to school night, the teacher reiterated the rules. No Elsa, no Spiderman, not even the gentle Hello Kitty is welcome here.
“So no fantasy characters? On anything?” one parent asked.
The American parents considered it, the room falling quiet.
“And robots?” someone’s father offered. “Are robots allowed?”
“Yeah, I’m afraid not,” the teacher said and smiled apologetically.
“What about a cat in sunglasses? My daughter has this adorable headband with a cat wearing sunglasses.”
There was a sigh of relief. A cat in sunglasses isn’t patented by Disney, it’s cute, and it’s, well, a cat.
“That’s a gray area,” the teacher said. “Would you see a cat in sunglasses in real life? If not, then it’s not allowed. Sorry.”
Some people started thumbing their handouts and shifting in their seats.
“Okay, what if, by sheer accident, a child does wear a shirt with fantasy characters?”
“Then we have to turn it inside out, unfortunately,” the teacher said. “Sorry, we don’t make these rules.” She highlighted the various dress-up events, holidays and a wealth of creative play in the curriculum.
I’m no child psychologist, but this made sense from the socioeconomic perspective. Obviously, imagination and fairy tales are an integral part of early childhood. But perhaps, if preschool wardrobe isn’t a marker of parental status or financial privilege, little kids might see each other as equal individuals, rather than princesses or superheroes.
Some people just like uniforms without being the red menace. Others don’t. In any case, it’s got my my post-Russian, liberal okay.