Dear Skerne Park Academy:
I just found about you, a magical school in England where the parents apparently wear pyjamas and slippers during the School Run (for Americans reading, the School Run is the act of dropping kids off at, and picking them up from, school). This didn’t best please the head teacher (a.k.a. school principal), who sent a note out to parents asking them to dress appropriately before arriving at the school gates each day.
As an American expat in London, I wasn’t sure it was legal in England to do the School Run in a state of dishabille. I’ve been known to adopt the practice myself, of course: if you’ve ever seen footage from the People of Walmart website, you know that we Americans are not exactly donning top hat and tails to go out in public. Plus, we spend a lot of time in our cars, which are good at hiding various wardrobe malfunctions. Ferrying my children to and from school and their various activities, I made the sartorial choice, daily and gleefully, to go bra-less under an old college sweathshirt and pair of yoga pants. I could have showered, could have worn jeans with a button-fly…but who’d be any the wiser if I didnt’?
Skerne Park, it took me a while to come to terms with the unique nature of the School Run, on this side of the pond. Initially, I found it odd that it’s called the School Run, when it’s actually a walk. Odder still was the personal appearance of the Mums, who comprise the majority of people engaged in this particular daily task. Their general looks of well-being, even at drop-off, suggested they expected to be judged by others: Hair brushed, often blow-dried; makeup on; all sporting a casually tailored look that would be labeled “weekend” in a J Crew catalogue. The children were equally turned out. Socks folded nicely over crisp black school shoes, hair combed down slickly or pulled into neat, expert braids (to be fair, you’re all really good at braids because of a somewhat laissez-faire attitude about nits, which you view as a chronic and public nuisance, rather than as a private shame, like we Americans. Kids can have nits and still go to school, but they’re less likely to spread if long hair is pulled back tightly). Uniforms neatly ironed – you British do love an iron – and tucked in where they should be.
You seemed like the most spotless and sanitary bunch on the planet. And you had the manners to match. Always saying “please” and “thank you,” listening when other people talked, no one screaming or throwing tantrums – not even the Mums.
This was all a bit of a contrast to my American family. When we first moved here, my children and I would arrive at the school gates every morning after a daily episode of eating breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth, and spending fifteen minutes trying to find shoes – the entirety of which was punctuated with tears, screams and slamming doors, audible to the whole neighborhood. We were unable to communicate with each other at a volume lower than that of a jumbo jet on approach to Heathrow. As I’ve said before, we were like the Soprano’s stumbling into a dinner party at Downton Abbey.
Our appearance was much worse, though, because at least Carmela and the kids were always presentable. My daughter’s French braids looked like they were woven with an egg whisk (I never perfected French braids in the US – we have to keep our kids at home if they have nits) and my son’s cowlick stood at attention at the back of his head, untamed by any attempts to douse it with a wet palm. It was almost the end of the first year before we discovered that he’d accidentally mixed up his school shoes and had been wearing his classmate’s on his right foot, for about four months.
And then, Skerne Park – there was me. I’d been known to delay a haircut or root touch-up until one of my children asked why I looked like a werewolf. Every New Year, I made a resolution to wear more lipstick, but even at forty I was still showing more of my naked face than anyone cared to see. Showing up at the school gates, surveying all these well-turned-out Mums and their impeccably dressed and mannered children – it got to me, after a while. Why did everyone else have it together? How did women with three children under the age of 5 have time to blow out their hair and put on makeup? I could barely see fit to brush my teeth, and my two kids were old enough to wipe themselves.
I started to suspect this was a cultural divide I’d never be able to bridge. Either the English upbringings of these Mums had instilled in them the good manners to put forth a personal appearance that didn’t offend, or they all had servants below-stairs to do their hair and pre-stretch their skinny jeans for 8:30 AM wearability.
But now I think I know the truth. Your story, Skerne Park, has given me hope that it is not an insurmountable difference between our two countries that keeps the English so artfully garbed during the School Run. Instead, it’s a latent childhood anxiety that the head teacher will “have a word” with those whose personal appearances are not up to her standards – even the parents. We don’t have to be supermodels (this is, after all, a land that doesn’t really deal in the concept of insurance coverage for dental care), but we should leave our old sweatpants and flannels at home. Those who willfully err on the side of slovenliness do so at their own peril. You’ve been held up as the example, Skerne Park, and this is a lesson to us all.
So here is a piece of advice I hope you’ll remember next time you have a case of the Mondays: an oversized sweater and a pair of leggings hide a multitude of sins and are almost as comfortable as your pyjamas. Barring that, just reach for the activewear. Everyone forgives activewear, because it implies productivity and exertion, rather than gluttony and laziness. Even the head teacher condones activewear at the school gates.
I hope this solves some of your trouble, Skerne Park, and know that there is at least one former public-pyjama-wearing American sympathizing with your plight.
Mommy Goes Mummy