Stephen’s mum read the letter her son had brought home from school. It was the last week of the Summer Term and the school would soon be breaking up for the holidays. The letter reminded parents of certain important regulations regarding school uniforms. Since Stephen would be entering the Third Form on his return to school after the holidays, the letter said, it was necessary for the school authorities to make clear that although the wearing of short grey trousers to school was compulsory during the first and second years at St John’s, boys beginning their third year could, at their parent’s discretion, start to wear long trousers for school. However, the letter continued, should it be decided to continue sending the boy to school in short trousers then parents were reminded that the maximum allowable inside leg measurement of short trousers worn to school was 1 ½ inches “regardless of the boy’s age, height or build”. In addition, boys sent to school wearing short trousers were expected to obey all the school uniform regulations which applied to boys wearing compulsory short trousers in the 1st and 2nd Forms and therefore boys who were to be kept in short trousers “must continue to wear a school cap at all times whether or not they are on school premises.”
Stephen’s mum thought for moment. She had quite forgotten that her son would be allowed to wear long trousers for the very first time when he returned to school in the autumn. She was reminded, as Stephen had pointed out, that her son, along with all the other boys in his class, would be thirteen years old when they returned to school in the autumn. She wondered what other mums would be doing. Would they be sending their boys back to school in newly purchased long trousers? This made her think of the expense of buying new school trousers for Stephen. The four pairs of short school trousers that Stephen possessed had plenty of wear left in them. True, Stephen had had a noticeable growth-spurt in the last few months and was now nearly an inch taller than she was, but most of that growth was in his legs and that didn’t make any difference to how well his school shorts fitted… it just meant there was a bit more bare thigh on display, really nothing at all for a mum to worry about.
Then there were Stephen’s play-shorts to think about. If she sent him to school in long trousers it wouldn’t be long, she reasoned, before Stephen started to pester her for a pair of denims to wear outside school. Once again Stephen’s mum considered the amount of wear left in the clothes he already had and of course Stephen’s play-shorts were designed to be rugged and long-lasting… yes, there was plenty of wear in those too. Why, Stephen could still get into a pair of play shorts she’d bought for him when he was eleven years old! They were very brief and snug now, but they still fitted him perfectly. I’m not throwing those away! There’s a good few year’s wear left in those…
But even so Stephen’s mum was at a loss as to what to do for the best. She had reservations about sending her son back to school in short trousers. The more she considered it, the more she thought Stephen might end up the only 3rd Form boy wearing short trousers to school; the other parents having bought long trousers for their sons. But buying long trousers for Stephen when there was nothing at all wrong with the short trousers he already had was something she couldn’t bring herself to do without making sure there were sound reasons for doing otherwise. And the fact that Stephen might be the only 3rd Form boy still in short school trousers wasn’t one of them. Even so, she wanted to make sure she was doing the right thing.
There was only one thing for it, she decided, and that was to call a family meeting at which the matter could be discussed and a decision reached as to what to do about Stephen’s school uniform in the forthcoming school year. Should it be short trousers or ‘longs’ for Stephen? Yes, mum thought, it’s only right the family decide what’s best for thirteen year old Stephen.
Family meetings, as Stephen’s mum had pointed out to her son on a number of other occasions, were an example of democracy in action. Everyone had an equal say in whatever the subject under discussion was (usually the destination for a day out, where to go for a special treat, or something of that nature) and they would all come an agreement. However if a consensus couldn’t be reached a vote was taken and the result of the vote was final with a simple majority dictating the course of action to be followed.
So it was the family was gathered together to discuss whether Stephen should be allowed to wear his first pair of long trousers. The members of this family gathering consisted of his mum, her sister Jennifer (Stephen’s aunt), her children (Stephen’s cousins) Rachel (16) and Freda (12).
Stephen wasn’t sure why his being allowed to wear long trousers to school should involve a family meeting and had serious doubts his mum, aunt and cousins understood how important long trousers are to a boy.
“But mum, I’m thirteen now…” Stephen repeated himself, “Please mum… please don’t send me back to school in short trousers after the holidays… please… All the other boys will be wearing ‘longs’, I know they will… Please mum…”
There was another factor too, something else of which Stephen was acutely aware. It so happened Stephen’s birthday was in the last week of September which made him the oldest boy in his year at school and therefore the first boy in his class to celebrate his fourteenth birthday. The next oldest boy in the class didn’t have his birthday until mid-November, so there was quite a big difference in age between Stephen and the other boys in his class. This worried Stephen; to be the only boy in his class still in short trousers was bad enough; to be the oldest boy and kept in short trousers was simply awful!
Then there was the prospect of seeing Sammy Greene in long trousers. Sammy was the youngest boy in Stephen’s class who would only be just thirteen when the new term started. This meant that Stephen was faced with the prospect of sitting in the same class as a boy almost a whole year younger than he was, but who wore long grey school trousers while he, Stephen, remained in short trousers. What made it even worse and added considerable insult to injury was that Sammy was a late-developer and looked even younger than he was; more like a 1st Former than a 3rd Former.
Stephen knew for a fact that Sammy Greene would be wearing long trousers as Sammy had proudly told anyone who would listen that he had already been with his mum to the school outfitters and had been bought a pair of ‘longs’. Sammy had also been allowed to wear his new long trousers (though not with the rest of his school uniform as that would have been a breech of uniform regulations) on a couple of family visits to show how grown-up he was now he was about to enter the 3rd Form. He’d also told everyone that he would be allowed to wear his new ‘longs’ to church on Sunday during the holidays. Since Sammy’s family went to the same church as Stephen and his mum, Stephen was guaranteed to find out if Sammy was telling the truth, although depressingly enough Stephen was sure Sammy wasn’t fibbing.
As these anxious thoughts tormented Stephen it was with an increasing desperation that he pleaded with his mother:
“…please, mum… please can I wear long trousers when school starts next year, mum… I’ll be fourteen in September…”
“…not until the end of September, Stephen.” His mum corrected him, “You’ll still be thirteen when school starts and that’s what matters.”
“But, mum, they’ll be loads of boys wearing ‘longs’…”
This approach didn’t work either as mum viewed the subject of the family discussion from a purely practical point of view. It sounded to Stephen as if his mum was indifferent as to what other boys would be wearing.
Stephen felt his stomach churn as everyone agreed how much smarter boys looked wearing short trousers. Mum told everyone how much wear was left in Stephen’s existing school clothes; certainly enough to see him through another few terms at school, possibly longer, without the additional expense of new school trousers.
Stephen did his best to state his case that boys of his age needed long trousers to wear to school; he was thirteen after all was said and done! He pleaded with his mum and his Aunt Jennifer; he even pleaded with his cousins, but in his heart knew that girls would never understand how important it was for a boy to get his first pair of long trousers. Stephen tried to explain that long trousers were an entitlement for a boy of his age.
But in his heart of hearts Stephen could see that his mum and his aunt were unconcerned with his feelings. They simply failed to take into account what it would be like for him to be the only bare-legged boy in his class. It seemed to Stephen that the only thing that mattered to them was the expense of long trousers.
The economic argument was simple and irrefutable: Why buy extra items of school clothing when it was unnecessary to do so? Why take on the extra expense of long trousers when Stephen hadn’t even finished growing? “Who knows how many pairs of long trousers you’ll end up buying, because he’ll soon grow out of them and before you know it you’ll have to buy him another pair…” his aunt had interjected, “You won’t have to worry how tall Stephen gets if he’s wearing short trousers.” Ominously Stephen could see his mum thought this was a very good point.
Short trousers were designed to be hard-wearing and long-lasting too. Stephen’s short school trousers had plenty of wear left in them and would be perfectly suitable for him to wear for a good long while yet. As Aunt Jennifer observed, it was not as if Stephen had a younger brother to hand them down to, which was considered to be another very valid argument. That last point made Stephen think of all his classmates who had younger brothers. He just knew these boys would all be going back to school in the autumn in long trousers. It was all so unfair!
“But why can’t you give my old school trousers to Mrs Higgs for Nicholas to wear… he’s only eleven?”
“That’s not the same thing at all…” mum said, “and besides he won’t need them anyway.”
Stephen didn’t understand his mum’s answer, so she had to explain the reason eleven year old Nicholas wouldn’t need a pair of second-hand short school trousers was that come autumn he would be starting at a school which had a completely different uniform policy to Stephen’s school. Boys at Nicholas’ new school were permitted to wear long trousers from the First Year onwards. No boys wore short trousers at this particular school.
“It’s not fair…” Stephen muttered under his breath. He could see it now, in spite of the fact that he was almost three years older than Nicholas, he would be kept in short trousers while the younger boy would be in ‘longs’. Anyone seeing them together at the bus-stop would automatically assume he, Stephen, was the younger of the two boys, in spite of the fact that he was much taller than Nicholas.
“It’s just not fair…” Stephen repeated to himself.
Mum read the letter she had received from her son’s school to the assembled family gathering much to Stephen’s annoyance. She apologised and told everyone that she was expected to inform the school whether Stephen would be returning to school wearing short trousers or ‘longs’, so it was important for the family to come to a decision. To Stephen’s dismay it was apparent that once the decision was made, his mum would be committed to sending Stephen to school wearing exactly the uniform which had been decided for him. At the moment, in Stephen’s eyes, it looked as if mum might very well send her soon to be fourteen year old son back to school in short trousers!
“I really can’t think of any reason not to keep Stephen in short trousers.” Aunt Jennifer made it perfectly clear her opinion on the matter. “Boys look much smarter in short trousers and are generally much better behaved,” she added.
“I quite agree with you Jennifer, but it’s not just a question of whether to keep Stephen in short trousers for school,” mum replied, “but should I allow Stephen to have some longs for ‘best’? He is going to be fourteen soon and after all boys have to start wearing long trousers at some point…”
This was a ray of hope for Stephen. If mum bought him ‘longs’ for best, then surely it would only be a matter of time before he could discard his short school trousers for good? But Aunt Jennifer dashed that possibility straightaway:
“If you want my opinion, Felicity, it would be most unfair to buy Stephen any long trousers, even if they are only to be worn for best. If he’s to be sent to school in short trousers, then he should be kept in short trousers at all times. It will be confusing for him for it to be otherwise. It will be no kindness to let him get used to wearing ‘longs’ for special occasions, only for him to have to change back into short trousers afterwards. It’s bound to upset him…”
Before Stephen had chance to say anything, his Cousin Rachel added her view: “I don’t see why Stephen shouldn’t carry on wearing short trousers whether he’s in school or not. A couple of the girls at school have brothers who are still in short trousers… and they’re much older than Stephen.” Then she turned towards her thirteen year old cousin and added, “Besides, Stephen looks cute wearing short trousers…”
Stephen blushed furiously at this comment. Even his long, smooth and very bare legs seemed to take on a rosy glow!
“Mumm…!” Stephen blurted out in protest.
“Oh, Stephen don’t be so silly! Rachel’s only teasing you.”
Stephen wasn’t so sure. He knew that girls, particularly older girls, had an instinct for embarrassing boys. If Rachel said there were other boys, boys older than he, kept in short trousers, then he, Stephen, better be careful this evidence wasn’t used to keep him in short trousers for ages as well!
“There’s even one boy who goes to school in long trousers, but has to change out of them and into proper grey school shorts when he gets home before he sits and does his homework,” Rachel added, “Pamela Evans says her brother is only allowed to wear ‘longs’ when he goes to school because boys in the 6th Form have to wear them, otherwise she said her mum would keep him in short trousers all the time.”
Hearing this made Stephen feel distinctly queasy. The idea that a 6th Form boy could be made to change back into short trousers when he got home from school sounded appalling, but when Rachel’s mum expressed disbelief his cousin told them:
“It’s true… I saw Pamela’s brother when I called… he answered the door and he was wearing full school uniform with short trousers… He’s not allowed to wear long trousers outside school.”
Stephen wished his cousin had kept quiet about Pamela’s brother.
Then Aunt Jennifer spoke again: “I think you have to ask yourself, Felicity, if there is any reason Stephen should be allowed to wear long trousers in the first place. For myself I can’t think of any reason not to keep him in short trousers for a good while yet. After all Stephen may well be nearly fourteen, but he is still a boy. In my opinion boys should be kept in short trousers and that’s all there is to it.”
“It hardly matters whether other misguided parents decide to send their sons to school wearing long trousers. It’s much more important Stephen sets an example. Keep him in short trousers, that’s my view and let everyone see how much smarter a boy in short trousers looks. Pamela Evans’ mother clearly seems to think so…”
Stephen, when he heard the forcefulness of his Aunt Jennifer’s argument, realised that any hope of convincing his mum to buy him some ‘longs’ for school was fast diminishing. Again he asked himself why his mum had called a family meeting to decide what he should wear to school. Again he mumbled to himself that it was so unfair! What did Aunt Jennifer know about boys anyway? What did she know about how important long trousers were to a teenaged boy? How could she possibly understand how humiliating it would be for him to be the only boy in his class wearing short trousers?
In his mind Stephen could already hear the schoolboy taunts of his classmates as they called him a shorty-short-shorts. He knew that he would be constantly teased about his bare legs. Legs that he already knew would be bare right to the very tops of his thighs. Grey school shorts with a maximum leg length of 1 ½ inches would guarantee that to be the case and he also knew the school outfitter would counsel caution as to the question of leg length. Stephen remembered that at his last visit the outfitter had recommended the inside leg measurement of his new boy’s school shorts should be less than an inch, “… just to be on the safe side. We wouldn’t want Stephen to break any of the school rules, would we?”
“Freda, what do you think?” Stephen’s mum asked his twelve year old cousin, “Do you think Stephen should be allowed long trousers for school?”
Inwardly Stephen fumed. What right had his little cousin to a say in what he wore? Never mind that it should be something as important as long trousers. It annoyed Stephen the fact that girls’ dresses were always longer than boy’s shorts. He looked down at himself and at his legs which were bare right to the very top of his thighs. Then he looked at Freda’s pinafore dress which reached all the way down to her knees. Why, Stephen wondered, was it alright to bare a boy’s legs but not a girl’s?
“I think boys should wear short trousers,” Freda replied and after giving the matter a few seconds thought, added, “Girls aren’t ever allowed to wear long trousers at my school, so I don’t see why boys should be allowed to wear them either.”
Stephen muttered: “That’s girl’s talk… not the same thing… It’s not fair…” But nobody was listening and with a sense of foreboding Stephen folded his arms, pushed out his lower lip in a pout and waited.
Then mum said it was time to decide whether Stephen would be allowed to wear long trousers when he moved up to the 3rd Form in the autumn: “Right,” she announced cheerily, “Who thinks that Stephen should continue to wear short trousers to school?”
It came as no surprise to Stephen when four hands were raised, as his mum, his aunt and his two cousins cast their votes to keep him in short trousers.
“And who thinks that Stephen should be allowed to wear long trousers to school?” said mum, continuing the formality of the family meeting.
Stephen looked noticeably sorry for himself (what boy wouldn’t?) as he raised his hand; the solitary vote in favour of ‘longs’.
“Four votes to one… That’s settled then,” mum announced, then turned to her son and said brightly, “Stephen, the family have decided that you should continue to wear short trousers when you return to school in the autumn…”
“… but mumm…” Stephen interrupted, “… but mum, it’s not fair…”
“It’s perfectly fair, Stephen,” mum pointed out, “We’ve had a Family Meeting at which you’ve had ample opportunity to explain why you think you should be allowed to wear long trousers to school. We’ve had a vote, a binding vote, on the matter… if you weren’t able to convince us of the merits of your point of view, then you’ve only yourself to blame…”
“But mum,” Stephen interrupted again, “Please mum…”
“That’s enough, Stephen,” mum said firmly, “That you’re making such a silly fuss about wearing short trousers I think proves that you’re not yet old enough to be allowed ‘longs’…”
“I’m warning you Stephen, the more fuss you make, the longer you’ll be kept in short trousers!”
“Quite right, Felicity,” Aunt Jennifer said and added, “If Stephen were my son, I’m sure I’d say the same.”
Stephen was heart-broken.
Mum continued: “I shall write to your school to confirm that you will be dressed in short trousers when you start school in the autumn…”
Stephen rubbed his bare thighs together. It looked as though he’d have to put up with wearing short trousers for quite a while longer.