Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Reprinted with permission from the August 2004 issue of TEXAS MONTHLY.
Dad vs. the Dress Code
When I was in the sixth grade in San Marcos, my rabble- rousing father fought the rules that dictated what I could wear to school. My hip-huggers survived, but I almost didn't.
by Elizabeth Crook
In 1971, when I was a sixth grader at Lamar Intermediate School, in San Marcos, my homeroom teacher handed her students a document titled "Student Dress and Grooming." It had to do with skirt lengths and hair lengths, shirttails and socks. Girls, it said, should not wear sweatshirts or shorts. They should not wear pedal pushers, blue jeans, or jumpsuits. They could wear pantsuits and coordinated slack-suits, unless the garments were formfitting. I remember some discussion about what, exactly, a "coordinated slack-suit" was. Boys had similar restrictions and a number of others regarding facial hair. No one could wear sunglasses indoors unless they were prescribed by a doctor.
My teacher instructed us to take the paper home and have our parents sign it, and I recall feeling an odd sense of foreboding. I had enough to be concerned about without some strange set of rules in need of a parental signature. For one thing, I had recently returned from a year in Australia, where my father, William H. Crook, had been the U.S. ambassador. Pencil erasers were called "rubbers" there, and I'd made the mistake of calling them that on coming home, asking Jaimy Breihan, who sat next to me in Language Arts, if he would let me borrow his. I had not yet lived this down. I was so compulsive about making good grades that my parents had resorted to hauling me off to San Antonio for weekly visits with a psychiatrist. Printed painstakingly on the covers of my school notebooks were missives to myself: "Don't worry about it." "Do not worry." "Please don't worry." I wore eyeglasses and braces and thought myself chic in a fringed faux-snakeskin skirt made of Naugahyde and a fringed leather purse that I wore strapped across my chest in the fashion of a Davy Crockett shot pouch.
I was not the coolest girl at Lamar, but I was not anonymous, as I lived in the biggest house in town and had political parents. My father had left the Baptist ministry to make a doomed run for Congress in East Texas on a civil rights platform in 1961. After serving a stint as president of the San Marcos Baptist Academy, he had teamed up with the Johnson administration as the national director of VISTA, and in 1969, after the election of Richard Nixon, had brought our family trailing back to San Marcos from Australia. Upon arriving home, he had grown his hair over his collar and purchased not one but two Lamborghini sports cars. The only thing I liked about the Lamborghinis was that the windows were tinted and I could not be seen from the outside.
"I'm not going to sign this," my father said when I presented him with the dress code after dinner.
"My teacher said you have to." The look on his face told me how ludicrous this argument would prove to be. There he sat, surveying me over his reading glasses, his thinning hair fanning over his ears in a length that would have been in violation of the code.
"What am I supposed to tell her?" I asked nervously.
"Tell her I won't sign it. Tell her she can talk to me if she wants to."
I doubted she would want to. I certainly didn't. There were standards in a conversation with my father that you felt you had to live up to. "Stop beginning sentences with 'I'm afraid,'" he used to tell me. "You use that phrase too much."
My brother, Bill Junior, came dragging into the room about this time, bearing his own copy of the dress code from Owen Goodnight Junior High. He got the same response. He also got a lecture on the Fourteenth Amendment and individual rights. My father told him he would sign a dress code that had to do only with decency, but he wouldn't sign this one.
It was the following week before I squared up the courage to give the sheet of paper back to my teacher, who had been asking about it. "It isn't signed," she remarked.
"I know. My father doesn't think it's . . . right."
"He doesn't think it's right?"
"He doesn't think it's legal."
Her annoyance hardened into a sudden coldness toward me. Apparently, in her estimation a good pupil had just turned rude and troublesome.
"It isn't constitutional," I said by way of further explanation, thinking I might clear things up. But I could tell from her response that the clearer things became, the less she was going to like them. She set the paper on her desk and told me to go sit down. After lunch I saw that it was gone. I hoped this would be the end of it.
But it was only the beginning. The dress code was about to upset the balance of the town and the school and, on a smaller scale, my own fledgling sense of identity. My father had just left a position where he was routinely addressed as "Your Excellency" or "Mr. Ambassador" and the family was cared for by a large staff that included an English butler, an Austrian chauffeur, and a number of Chinese cooks. Since arriving back on Texas soil, he had been restless and powerless.
Defeating the dress code in the San Marcos public schools became his job that year. I doubt he ever had a job he enjoyed more. He was happiest when he was fighting for a good political cause, and he saw the dress code as a petty bid for power by a moralistic superintendent. In Australia I had attended the Canberra Church of England Girls' Grammar School, where the students wore uniforms and carried matching satchels and had their socks and fingernails inspected every morning. But that was different, my father explained. That was a private school, where we pledged allegiance to the queen of England every morning. That was not the United States of America.
I know now, of course, that the dress code was more about a fear of change than it was about clothing or hair. The hippie movement was creeping up on San Marcos: A health-food restaurant that sold sprout sandwiches had planted itself on the outskirts of town. Neighboring Buda had become a giant marijuana farm. Superintendent Gordon Harmon, the driving force behind the dress code, apparently perceived himself to be holding off a tidal wave of change.
My father, however, loved change. He found it hopeful and exhilarating. On his desk was a framed excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance," including the famous line "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." It is ironic that, while he was fighting the dress code, he was arguably the best-dressed man in San Marcos. He wore Oxxford suits and Hermès ties. In many ways he was a standard-bearer for the stodgier world that was being shoved aside in 1971: He was prudish and old-fashioned, deeply analytical and spiritual, a devoted patriot, routinely up in the night reading the poems of T. S. Eliot or Robert Browning. But he was descended from a line of freethinkers, and the idea of being outside the action was intolerable to him. His father had been a minister who spoke Hebrew and preached the original Baptist doctrines of separation of church and state and freedom of individual thought, and from him my father inherited a pugnacious resistance to anything he believed to be wrong. His opposition to the dress code became a milestone in my life, a time in which many things about human nature became clear to me.
When the dress code went into effect, it was immediately disruptive. Students who for years had gone to school in hand-me-down blue jeans and cheap white T-shirts were suddenly in trouble when they showed up dressed that way. Black students with Afros were sent home. Hispanic high school boys were made to shave their mustaches. Minorities quickly turned against the dress code. Parents started appearing at the schools, demanding to talk to the principals and counselors. Who could afford to dress their kids in shirt collars and coordinated slack-suits? they asked. And who wanted to?
Their questions were all but ignored. Students who didn't comply with the code were sent home or made to wait in the principal's office until someone brought them a change of clothes. They missed exams. Their grades fell. Repeat offenders were suspended.
Students began circulating petitions protesting the "Harmonization." The dress code called for "businesslike" attire, so they appeared in T-shirts with fake ties painted on them. A handful of professors from Southwest Texas State University refused to make their sons cut their hair when they were threatened with suspension. Bob Barton, an activist in town, published editorials against the dress code in his liberal newspaper.
Eventually my father's voice was heard above all these others—or so it seemed to me. He started by writing a letter to the editor of the San Marcos Daily Record, citing a court judgment about a dress code in another Texas town and expounding on the Bill of Rights. Before it was all over, the town was polarized.
One Sunday morning my father rustled my brother and me and our younger sister, Noel, out of bed and told us to come out on the front porch. He had the same excitement about him that he did on Christmas mornings, and I hurriedly pulled on some clothes. My mother was already out there. Stuck into our front lawn, under an enormous elm tree, was a crude cross made from a couple of flimsy boards; it was charred at the base.
"Someone tried to burn a cross in our yard last night," Dad announced proudly, puffing out his chest, the cold air misting his breath.
My mother was quiet, looking at the spectacle. She wasn't as elated as my father was.
"Dinky, isn't it?" he said. He was disappointed that the perpetrators had not been able to light it, but I could tell he loved the thing. "I've always wanted to have a cross burned in my yard. I'm tempted to set it on fire."
Instead, he called the police, who came and hauled it away. Afterward he called his friend Bill Moyers to tell him about the incident. He and Moyers were in the habit of talking on Sunday mornings, and I can still see my father seated in his reading chair that morning with the phone pressed to his ear, his grin practically splitting his face in two, an unlit, chewed-on cigar in his hand, his right ankle crossed over his left knee, a Gucci slipper dangling from his foot. "Bill? You'll never guess what was in my yard this morning . . ."
My brother survived the first month of the dress code by combing his hair back to make it appear shorter; it exceeded the length permitted because it covered the tops of his ears. The strategy temporarily satisfied the junior high principal even if it didn't actually fool him. Bill wore a black armband to school, and when one of the coaches asked him what it was for, he answered ruefully, "To mourn the death of democracy." "Oh," the coach replied. Everything seemed to be going all right until my father suggested to Bill that he ought to own up to his hair length. Predictably, when Bill showed up at school with his hair combed over his ears, the principal called him in and told him he could not come back to school until he cut it. Bill went home and told my father, who gave him the option of cutting his hair or staying home with tutors for the balance of the year and applying to a private school—St. Stephen's Episcopal School, in Austin—for the following year. Bill chose the tutors and St. Stephen's. "Did you feel any pressure from Dad about it?" I asked him recently. He is now a Republican. He was thoughtful about his answer. "I remember he sat me down and said, 'Son, men have died for less than this.' I don't know," he said, laughing. "Would you call that pressure?"
I recall a meeting in our living room of about a dozen parents whose children—mostly boys with long hair—had been suspended for violating the dress code. My father fielded questions from the group with his Dallas attorney over the telephone. I remember that some of the men seemed edgy and nervous about how their jobs might be affected if they took a public stand against the dress code. My father, however, seemed to be having fun. In spite of his unusual insight into many things, he did not have insight into people's worries. He was impatient with equivocation. It was a paradox of his personality that he could champion the underdog without really understanding what the underdog was going through.
He flew his attorney down from Dallas to address a packed hearing on the dress code in the high school auditorium. The audience was pro-Harmon, the mood toward my family ugly and aggressive. The attorney's plane was late, and when he arrived, his speech was met with booing and hissing. Speakers in support of the dress code received standing ovations. My parents, my brother, and I were seated near the middle of the auditorium, Dad wearing his Oxxford suit, Bill wearing his hair down to his earlobes now. People turned to stare at us throughout the hearing. At the close, the school board voted to keep the dress code as it was written. Several of Bill's former elementary school teachers refused to speak to him when he said hello to them in the parking lot as we were leaving. I made a beeline for the car. On the drive home, Mother observed that this was the first time she had ever understood what it was like to be hated.
On behalf of a group of parents opposed to the dress code, my father and his attorney drew up a federal lawsuit against superintendent Harmon, several principals and vice principals, and the members of the school board, alleging violations of constitutional rights. But they never actually filed the suit, because at the time, courts almost always ruled in favor of dress codes, and there wasn't much chance of winning. They merely used it to threaten Harmon and the board.
On Cinco de Mayo, almost half of the students in the San Marcos public schools—mostly Hispanics disgruntled about the dress code and racial issues—boycotted the schools, gathering in the Girl Scout hut at the river for free hot dogs and music and speeches. My father approved of the boycott but gave me a choice about whether to go to school. Being compulsive about my grades, I decided not to join the boycott after one of my teachers singled me out and told me pointedly that she would give me an F on the scheduled test if I was not in school. I felt some shame about my decision, knowing that I was making it out of weakness rather than conviction, but I also understood, in some rudimentary, adolescent way, that staying home just to please my father would be equally weak. The truth was, I didn't care about the dress code. I remember plodding along down Belvin Street on the way to school that day, thinking at every step that I might find the strength and social conscience to forgo my compulsive need for A's and turn back toward home. I imagined how Dad would receive me. How proud he would be.
Bill was spared the decision of whether to join the boycott, as he was at home with private tutors on account of his hair. It was shortly after the boycott that he and my father began distributing bumper stickers with the slogans "Hair Harmon" (as in "Heil Hitler") and "Repeal the Dress Code." They drove around in one of the Lamborghinis late one night plastering the bumper stickers onto traffic signs, starting on Harmon's street and working concentrically from there.
A school board election was coming up, hotly contested because of the dress code. On the day before the election, the principal of Lamar called me into his office to discuss the length of my skirt. I had never been in trouble at school before and was as frightened as if I had been caught on the wrong side of the law. The principal and I had always liked each other.
"What do you think?" he asked as I stood before him, embarrassed, my arms at my side so that he could see if my fingertips hung below my skirt. "Is it too short?"
"I don't know," I said. It was a scooter skirt—basically shorts with a flap in front. My mother had bought it at Sears.
He seemed reluctant to pass judgment and called in the counselor. I was sent into the hallway so they could converse in private, then called back in. The length of the skirt was all right, he said, but it needed to have a flap in the back as well as in the front. I wouldn't be allowed to wear it to school again.
My father was furious when I told him what had happened. After a discussion with the principal, he fired off a letter to a member of the school board, a former friend of his, citing Harmon's recent claim to the press that there were no "specific" mandated lengths for skirts. "How 'specific' can one get? And how stupid?" The timing of the incident—the day before the school board election—was political, he wrote. "Why that day? Why our child?"
Conservative candidates won the school board election. I was questioned again about my attire, this time by a male teacher in an empty classroom. He remarked on the fitting and the seams of my pants, concluding that they were hip-huggers and in violation of the dress code. Again, my father wrote to the school board. He protested "the embarrassment and humiliation suffered by our little girl" and described the interrogation as indecent and evidence of "the system's sick and sordid preoccupation with something other than education. . . . Nothing in the dress code prohibits such apparel and her being called to account can only be attributed, at best, to the over-extension of State power to the sacred person of my daughter."
The "sacred person" and her siblings were now being driven by their mother to church in Austin every Sunday because the preacher at the First Baptist Church in San Marcos was a leader of the Harmon camp. The end of the school year was chaotic. Honor students were being suspended for refusing to cut their hair; teachers opposed to the dress code were secretly smuggling homework assignments to them.
By the time classes started again in the fall, people were calling for Harmon's resignation. The school board, facing increasing hostility, finally announced that it would create a committee of 54 members—students, parents, and teachers—to review the dress code. My father was quoted in the papers saying that this proposal was the "first flicker of leadership that the board has shown since Harmon began his long ego trip." He did not oppose rules prohibiting immodest dressing and wrote the board saying he believed that if a credible committee studied the issue, a reconciliation could be reached in the community and he would be among the first to support it.
I was in the seventh grade now at Lamar and suddenly under pressure from students who opposed the dress code to run for a place on the committee. Although reticent by nature, I was still my father's daughter, and some of his ambition, if not his fearlessness, had seeped into my personality. So I signed up as a candidate and had a poster party. Many of my friends were not allowed to come, as their parents supported the dress code. I fretted through the campaign but in the end won by a good margin. The candidates' slots at Lamar were divided by sex and ethnic group, and I was elected to the slot for an "Anglo girl."
"I'm proud of you, baby," my father said. But when the school board announced a blatantly pro-Harmon slate of teachers and parents to serve on the committee, it became clear that the elected students would have no real influence. Dad wrote a letter to the school board and paid to have it published in the San Marcos Daily Record. The students had been "trusting, patient, mature and indulgent," it said, and had even "managed a sense of humor at the inflexible follies so fanatically embraced by so many." But they had been "cynically deceived." The children, he wrote, "have suffered from this continuing lunacy, and now they are faced with a hanging jury under a hanging judge. God bless them."
The first meeting of the dress-code committee was held in the Lamar auditorium, and I badly wanted to make some showing that my father and the students who had elected me would be happy with. The public was kept out, so my parents were not there. As I remember it, the board members were on the stage and the rest of us sat in the auditorium seats. I was apprehensive, staring into the faces of a row of people who disliked my parents. It is a personal curse of mine that I am the exact opposite of my father in one particular: I have always cared too much what people think of me, even when I don't think much of them. I remember trying to be friendly and appealing to Harmon and the members of the board. I remember smiling at them, though some of them did not smile back. I knew it would be hard to keep this up if I was only going to say things that my father would be proud of. Wanting to get it over with, I was the first to speak.
Afterward, my parents were waiting outside the school to take me home, and when I told them how it had gone, Dad praised my courage for speaking out. If he thought my comments were lukewarm, he didn't let on. The next day, one of the newspapers reported on the meeting: "Mary Beth Crook said the code 'should be abolished, but if it can't be, it should be modified.'" Dad congratulated me on being quoted in the paper. "In the face of all this bigotry," he said, "you've taken a stand." But I knew the quotation was tepid.
Hispanics continued to press grievances that went beyond the dress code, and a second boycott ended only when the U.S. Department of Justice sent in a mediator to negotiate and get the children back in school. By the following year, 1973, enough of the town had turned against Harmon to win control of the school board. The night those election returns came in, my father piled the three of us kids into his car and drove us past Harmon's house honking the distinctive, high-pitched horn. I was in the back, on the floorboard, nervous about being seen, a hostage to my father's elation.
Later that night he attended a victory party in the offices of an underground newspaper in the warehouse district, near the railroad tracks. The liberals were all there. Minorities turned out in force. I've been told that my father arrived in one of the Lamborghinis with several bottles of scotch and entered the building holding the bottles over his head. The crowd surrounded him and cheered as he made his way to the center of the room. "He gave our cause legitimacy," Juan R. Palomo told me recently. Back then, Palomo was a young high school art teacher, one of 34 individuals who were being sued by the school board for their part in the second boycott. "We always knew that if anyone was going to take things further, attract the national press, or go to court or whatever, it was going to be Bill Crook," he said.
The newly elected board threw out the dress code and fired Harmon. He demanded a public hearing, which dragged on for days in the sweltering heat of the high school auditorium, the crowds dwindling when Chilympiad, the local chili cookoff, got under way. In the end, Harmon got his job back but promptly quit and moved away.
After the dress code was abolished, my father moved on to other interests. He lived another quarter of a century, standing up for causes and taking up for people. He was my touchstone. He was my standard for courage. When I was timid or muddled, he shamed me into action. I came to understand him better as I grew older. I had always known that the way to secure his love was to earn his respect, and at some indefinable point along the way, I realized I had succeeded. The effort to hold on to it has been the animating force in my life. I would not have preferred a father who signed the piece of paper.
In 1985 he and my brother went to Ethiopia under the auspices of the Episcopal Church to help establish an orphanage during a famine. While they were there, he contracted hepatitis B, which, after a great deal of suffering, led to his death twelve years later. Few besides close family and friends even knew that he was sick; he was never caught complaining. As he told me on several occasions, more instruction than observation: "Our people"—meaning us, meaning me in the future—"Our people die well."
My family has all but forgotten the controversy over the dress code. But when I am in San Marcos and encounter someone from those days, I always remember which side of the fight they were on. I don't know if they would be on the same side now. I know there is a dress code in the San Marcos public schools, and few, if any, seem to have a problem with it. I know of other school districts where dress codes are creating controversy. It seems we didn't settle anything back in the early seventies. I recently talked to my mother about the dress code and what it had meant in our lives. Strangely enough, neither of us had much to say about it. But then neither of us had had much to say about it thirty years ago. It was Dad's fight, not ours.
"What do you think about all that now?" I asked her. Her answer summed it up for both of us. She got a dreamy look in her eyes and shook her head. "I miss him," she said.