The Uniform Game

8th and 9th graders in a graduation ceremony in November 2016.
The new school year begins each January.
School started in El Salvador this week.  Traffic on Monday was crazy as the buses once again were filled with children, and parents with cars took to the streets in the early hours.  At midday, as the little ones head home for lunch and the older students head to school for classes, the streets are once again filled with chattering children clutching projects and small backpacks, teenage girls walking arm in arm, and boys smirking and trying to talk to the teenage girls.  They are easy to see:  all these children in white shirts.

As in many places in the world, schools in El Salvador require their students to wear uniforms.  Navy blue skirts, white blouses and white knee socks with Mary Jane black shoes identify public elementary and middle school girls.  Substitute blue dress pants and black dress shoes for boys.  Kindergarten children sometimes have blue and white gingham shirts.  They also have smocks.  Most of the high school students wear kakhi or green bottoms with the white tops.  Some schools have white pullovers with collars and the school logo embroidered on the front shoulder or the sleeve.  These are the everyday uniforms.  On gym day, boys and girls alike wear stretchy or silky gym pants and white pullovers.

When the FMLN won the office of the presidency, one commitment it made to the public was to provide uniforms and shoes to students.  (Students also receive a small scholastic package with a couple of notebooks and pens.)  This has been heralded as a big help to poor families, who in the past struggled to provide their children with acceptable uniforms and approved shoes.  Without the right clothing, many children were not allowed to attend school.

The government contracted with small businesses throughout the country to produce the school uniforms.  In our sister church community, for example, a small sewing cooperative has a contract to sew uniforms for a few of the local schools.  The uniforms they make are of high quality, with sturdy fabric and very professional design and stitching.  The challenge:  the government must have the money to pay for the materials and labor, and the businesses need to receive the government fund or actually receive the bolts of fabric in a timely fashion in order to make the uniforms.

So, on the first day of school, children do not have their new uniforms.  This may not be a big deal for students who are attending the same school as the year before, or who have not grown much over the vacation time.  However, for children who are moving from kindergarten to preparatory, or from a community 5th grade to the middle school in town, or from 9th grade to high school, this is a problem.  In addition, for the thousands of youth who need to change schools because gang boundaries have moved or threats have been made, the uniform change is problematic.

One mother with a house full of children told me that the regular uniform would probably arrive at start of March.  The gym uniform might not come until August or even later.  Even with the arrival of the government uniforms, it is difficult to keep the children well-dressed when they only have one uniform each.  To wash it, dry it and iron it, especially in the rainy season when clothes do not dry well, is a challenge.  So, what is a mother to do?

Uniforms are precious.  Children learn early to care well for their uniforms.  Mothers are expert at letting out seams, letting down hems and re-designing them to fit.  Big uniforms can be cut down to make two smaller ones, or small ones can be cut apart to create something new from the pieces.  Families are also expert at knowing what children in the community have attended which schools.  Older students participate in an informal sharing economy of passing uniforms around among friends.  If they can, mothers try to buy fabric that matches the school uniform fabric, so they can make extra shirts or skirts or pants at home.  This is the uniform game.

As with many things in El Salvador, the uniform game is time-consuming and worrisome for the mothers and grandmothers who are responsible for getting their children to school.  And, as with many things in El Salvador, unless you spend some time in a home, with moms and kids scrambling before the start of the school year, you might never know that the uniform game exists.


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