A century ago, the polished principal of Edward Little High School, Robert J. Sisk, was noted for his severe sartorial standards, and his long list of fashion “no-nos” for his students.

No sweaters. No jerseys or flannel shirts. And no corduroy trousers, under any circumstances.

“He takes considerable pride is his own personal appearance and wishes the boys do the same,” the Sun Journal reported on Oct. 24, 1907, when Sisk’s fashion policing was fomenting insurrection in turn-of-the-century Auburn.

Sisk had banned a senior boy from delivering a speech because he was wearing a sweater. Later, at the school board, an EL senior said Sisk wore “full evening dress” during a recent school reception, an episode more embarrassing than stylish. “I hardly think that is setting a good example,” said the senior.

It’s hard to imagine a Maine where sweaters and corduroys are unwelcome school attire; some parents today would be overjoyed if their children chose this conservative combination over their usual garb. But although styles change, some truths are apparently concrete:

Between administrators and students, style is always a matter of differing opinion.

Which is the backdrop to Monday, when three EL students left school after their appearance – black clothing, “Gothic” makeup – was construed as distracting to education. They feel their right to expression was violated, while the principal, Jim Miller, maintained he was enforcing school appearance standards.

It’s a high wire administrators and students have balanced upon for decades. Unfortunately, in enforcing fashion or style standards, schools often create bigger distractions than the ones they try to prevent.

The EL “Goth” trio are mild offenders. Their makeup was minimal, and wearing all-black clothing is far from unusual. (Nobody would call Johnny Cash a Goth.) They are three teenagers who have embraced an identity, one beyond what’s considered mainstream or popularly acceptable.

It doesn’t make them any greater distraction than the more prevalent, provocative, teenage fashion trends.

What the dark, morbid attire indicates is their feeling of alienation. By donning black duds and amateurish eye makeup, these students feel they’re part of something – a subculture that welcomes those outside the “mainstream.”

Since the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1998, though, this style has become equated with violence, making its devotees prime targets for peers and administrators.

This is the last thing a teenager, who is already feeling alienated or marginalized, needs.

EL Principal Miller acted within the letter of school policy, but fell into the same trap as his predecessor Sisk and countless others. One hundred years ago, it was sweaters and corduroys. Today it’s makeup and black clothing. This cat-and-mouse game will never end.

Not until schools can somehow develop policies that can eliminate the alienation, angst and rebelliousness that teenagers will undoubtedly use their persons to display.

Or, they realize that forcing a teenager to change is the surefire way to guarantee they won’t.

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