"Geeking Up" Pants is One School's Solution to the Baggy Pants Situation

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My father, a retired probation officer who has spent many years on duty in California juvenile halls, is always quick to point out the origins of the baggy pants trend. He reminds the boys that the saggy style originated in prisons. He explains (what seems to be the consensus) that many prison inmates who were issued pants that were too big had to “let ‘em hang” because in prison no belts were allowed.

This style was continued by men, especially African-American and Latino men (and especially gang members), who, upon release, continued to wear their pants saggin’ as a proud announcement that they had served time. Thus the style came to be associated with being a “hardened” criminal, or at least a “hard” gangster on the street. Rappers joined in, popularized the trend in the 1990's, and a cultural phenomenon was born. Though this persistent phenomenon has become pervasive among “a certain demographic," it has also crossed over to others … all others.

Just yesterday, at the school where I teach, I saw an Asian kid running down the hall holding his pants up to his thighs. Actually, I say “running,” but his gait was really a weird kind of variation of running where his legs were too far apart, but he was taking tiny steps forward … really fast. This was all, of course, necessary to keep from running right out of his humongous pants. The pants were belted, in accordance with school policy, but the belt did not seem to help. This trend has crossed socio-economic lines, too. It is by no means only happening in the inner-cities. My boys sagged through private high schools, through Princeton and Harvard, and into the job market. And so did (and do) all of their friends.

I know enough about teens and young adults to appreciate self-expression, generation identification, and the stick-it-to-the-man attitude that has been so much a part of adolescent choice of attire historically. I get it. I also get the identification with Hip-Hop culture, a culture that has produced profoundly provocative music, spoken word poetry, art and other forms of young urban expression, not to mention spawned all kinds of new entrepreneurialship and self-possession. But if we are being honest, we have to also acknowledge that a profound part of this movement is about materialism through illegal means, violence and anti-intellectualism.

I think this is what makes what is happening at Westside Middle School in Memphis, Tennessee, such a quandary. Principal Bobby White instituted a saggy pants policy whereby all boys whose pants sag below the acceptable limit are “geeked up.” “Geeked up” means that their pants will be “Urkeled.” This means that when caught, a student’s pants will be hitched up as high on the student’s waist as necessary to keep them from dragging on the floor, resembling the Family Matters television show character, mega-nerd Steve Urkel. Faculty members use Twisty Ties to do the hitching. Twisty Ties. Brilliant!

Most of us know that the pants don’t make the man. But like the administrators and faculty at Westside, many of us are concerned that saggy pants (especially extremely saggy pants) can impede our young men not just literally, but figuratively, in many ways. Certainly looking like an inmate and a gang member can be a problem just about anywhere they may go — school, work, on the street.

But we’re also worried about the students’ decision to buy-in to a culture that encourages men to sag their pants and hold them up by the crotch. This same culture often also endorses other kinds of behavior that is risky, illegal, immoral and misogynistic. This post is not the place and certainly there is not enough word space to list all of the music, music videos, movies and TV shows that illustrate this point. But we cannot deny that the same trend that finds its genesis in prison is often anti-education — promoting the idea that being book-smart is not cool, and certainly not gangster. And so I think it’s understandable that an educator, such as Principal Bobby White, might decide to combat Westside Middle School’s “saggy pants problem” head on.

Some might feel that Westside’s solution is extreme. You might even object on the grounds that what a student wears is a parent’s jurisdiction. Make no mistake, it's the baggy pants that are extreme and have inspired equally extreme reactions from parents and other adults who disapprove and are upset about the fact that the trend is enduring for so long and the pants are getting ever saggier. Even law enforcement and legislators have attempted to eradicate through legal means. Some men have been arrested for indecent exposure and several states have proposed bills (so far unsuccessfully) to compel folks to pull’em up and put on a belt.

I’ll take a little school intervention like Westside’s over this parent’s reaction — a father who shot his son in the rear because he wouldn’t pull his pants up. This shooting, incidentally, occurred in Memphis, not too far from Westside Middle School. And I think many of the Westside middle schoolers might prefer getting Urkeled over having to hear American Idol contestant, Larry Platts’ “Pants On the Ground” song — One. More. Time.

I have to admit that I like that Westside school administrators have decided to take this on with a sense of humor and with commitment. The policy is clear (no sagging pants). The warnings are posted (including pictures of Steve Urkel smiling down from hallway walls). The message is consistent (“strap up or get strapped”) … and it works. With an 80% drop in kids getting Urkeled, perhaps the focus can shift to the next challenge, such as getting those boys' reading scores up. As Principal White says, “there’s something about looking right, acting right -- you begin to think right.” If by “thinking right ” he means that once the sagging problem is under control, everyone at Westside will begin to focus on such matters as improving their literacy and continuing to close the achievement gap with the same 80% improvement, well then, they really are onto something big!

Gina Carroll, author of 24 Things You can Do With Social Media to Help get Into College, also blogs at Think Act Parent and Tortured By Teenagers

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