Substance and Style

Hanging around middle-schoolers has acquainted me with styles, trends, and despite attempts to look cool. A student walking down the hallway with white AirPods in his ears is on the same level as my classmates wearing penny loafers down the high school corridors of fifty years ago.

Having the hood of the hoodie covering your head is also a sign of extreme coolness. In fact, having the hood on plus having one’s classmates being able to see that an AirPod is sticking in at least one ear borders on over-the-top coolness.

My mom worked at Penney’s, so my level of coolness was resembling of lukewarm milk. She received substantial discounts for working there on anything that smacked of ordinary but suitable. I had a suitable haircut, suitable socks, geeky-looking glasses, and clean underwear in case for some odd reason I lost my pants during the school day. My mom was a stickler about making sure my tighty-whitey’s were clean!

Most middle-schoolers are drawn to style. In a time of masks and weirdness, they believe style defines them. If given a choice between substance and style, most would fall with their full weight toward style. Substance is not a high priority. It doesn’t rise up the chart until sometime later.

And yet, there are some kids who have discovered it. There are those examples of students who have come to understand that what’s inside is more important than what is on the outside. Tony Dungy remembers a story from his growing up years when he went with his dad to buy a new pair of basketball shoes. The Chuck Taylor’s (the equivalent of today’s Air Jordans) was $7.99, but the Kmart shoes were $3.99. His dad showed him that both pairs were made of the same material. Tony told his dad that might be true, but the Chuck Taylor’s were cool and it was important to look cool to his friends. His dad said that might be somewhat true and if Tony wanted to spend his own money to make up the difference between the Kmart brand and the Chuck Taylor’s, the extra $4.00, that was his choice. His dad wanted him to know that it was what was inside that counted. In the end, substance says more than style.

I have some students in class who have discovered that. It’s not that their lives are void of style, but character defines them and will be the reason I remember them for years to come. In fact, there are a few of those students who I will grieve over their departure to high school.

It has been a year of extremes. Many of the students who have missed a year of consistency as a result of last year’s pandemic are searching for something to hold on to, something to wrap their life around. They need an identity, a way to define their personhood. Style is the easy go-to. Substance and a comfortableness about who the student is something that only a few have discovered.

Tony Dungy concludes the Chuck Taylor’s story by saying that soon after his Kmart shoes purchase, ironic as it was, Converse came out with the new slogan, “It’s what’s in inside that counts!”

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