LEWISTON — This month has brought the start of another school year in Maine and, on that momentous occasion in all guardians’, parents’ and children’s lives, the annual newsletter, handbooks and expectations welcoming students back.

Across America, official school dress codes were distributed, outlining which “community values are reflected in our students,” enforcing communal standards imposed on our families year after year, ready and waiting for our prompt annual parental acknowledgment and compliant citizen signatures. The speeches delivered to our children defined the parameters of our sons’ and daughters’ modesty even further.

Dress codes have also been brought to light in Maine, by a fierce young woman at Bangor High School, Cat Just, who had a mature and courageous message for the faculty and student body in the district.

After the school’s male vice principal explained the dress code (saying, “Ladies, we don’t want to see your bra straps,” Ms. Just told a Brewer radio station) and informed girls in the audience that they’d have to cover up or go home if they violated the rules, Ms. Just urged her fellow students – boys and girls – to challenge sexism by wearing clothes that defied the dress code.

She did what I’d expect my children to do: Get active. Stand up for your rights. Never be silent in the face of adversity, inequality and discrimination.

LEARNING TO WALK THE LINE

As a Lewiston mother of three, two of whom are school age, I experience constant “return to school” angst, struggling between setting a professional and courteous example for my children and encouraging them to have a “successful civic experience” when addressing the policies and rules that govern them for such long periods of their lives.

It starts that first day of kindergarten, at the moment you let go of their hand for the first time as they walk into their school classroom or ride the bus. You learn quickly to walk the line between your and your children’s idea of America and everyone else’s ideas of how we may or may not freely express that in our public schools.

I’ve been surprised by some of the responses to Cat Just and her protest. In a recent Bangor Daily News op-ed, for example, Patricia Callahan said she herself is “no prude,” but after “getting mooned” by a girl in short shorts in a high school parking lot, she thought: “Is a young woman’s right to expose herself in a publicly funded setting more important than others’ right not to witness it?”

I was somewhat speechless over the self-professed non-prudish, “liberal-minded” author’s narrative. Mostly because I would also apply that character description to myself, yet my liberal-minded America, with its equal rights and separation of church and state, certainly doesn’t match the version of America Ms. Callahan responded from.

DRAWING THE LINE

When did it become it OK in America to measure any woman’s modesty or lack thereof? When did it become OK to not commend young women for invoking their civil liberties and right to expression, simply because someone caught too much cheek at a school dropoff in small-town USA on any day of the week before 7 a.m.?

Opinions like these gravely miss the point and glorify objectification. Have we already forgotten the lesson of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, jailed for contempt after forcing her values, morals and ideology on members of the public?

Do we shame the female ankle in America? How, then, can we shame a girl’s collarbone, shoulder or personal style if she has free expression extending into the classroom? Why must we have to assume that supporting the Bangor girls’ right to expression means that we simultaneously support scantily clad students?

Where do we draw the line as parents and citizens? Do we need to free the bra strap now? Ask the questions: How much more do school dress codes impact females based on their body type and size? Do they need to also button their shirts to the top button?

CIVIL LIBERTY BOUNDARIES

Tell your children the truth: “You define your worth, dignity and moral fiber! It’s not defined by someone else’s opinion of your clothes.” When apparel that raises eyebrows is marketed to our children, are they fully aware not only that their clothes are expected to fit like they’re tailor-made, but also that they are expected to fit the label that society hurls at them like a rock-covered snowball?

Parents, teach your children the value of being Americans. Tell your children where their America ends and another individual’s America begins. Learn healthy civil liberty boundaries with your peers now!

Ask yourselves: What America do you believe in? Certainly not an America where freedom isn’t absolute.