"I am so glad not to be in high school anymore," Mary Hardy tells me.
The wise college sophomore was responding to an article I asked her to read about adolescent girls dressing badly.
As in, like sluts.
Mary tells me: "My parents never let me dress like that and I am grateful -- only now -- to them because the boys in high school, although they did not say it, did respect me more especially at the dances, where no one tried to come up and 'dance' with me in the manner they did with the other girls, whose bodies were mostly exposed."
She got a little R.E.S.P.E.C.T, in other words.
As it happens, Aretha Franklin's signature song was among the covers Charles Atkinson's band Dandelion Wine played at a pub near where Mary and some of her friends were opening a university conference they organized on work and femininity.
Mary, her cohorts and Charles (who's in his third year, studying literature and classics) are undergraduates at Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida. It's a Catholic school, so some of the conference discussion dwelled on biblical principles, theology and prayer. But it was also oh-so-practical.
There is a sense of true social justice here. These young people understand human lives to be great gifts that should be offered in creative service, not spent in desperation or in demeaning disjointed or selfish ways. They understand that there is great beauty and true happiness to be found in living according to a natural law, one that so many of our traditions and the best of our history and culture teach, reflect, and aspire to.
When Monica Waldstein walked into a room at her all-girls high school, a particular clique would mimic throwing up, she remembers.
Being a self-possessed young woman, dressing with a little modesty, was not cool in school. But for at least one of those girls, Monica had something she wanted. "Once she asked for my advice because she was trying to decide which of two boys she should go out with. (She said), 'You seem so much happier than every one else, so I thought that you would give good advice.'"
The poised junior biology major's experience only affirmed her upbringing. "When I see girls who dress that way, I feel sorry for them because they think that the attention they are attracting will make them happy but it really will not. They do not know that they would be much happier if they behaved differently."
The secret is out here. Eileen Gallagher, finishing up her sophomore year as a political science major, feels similarly and adds: "I was able to act and dress appropriately during the hardest teenage years because of the love and support of my family. Now, in college, I try to dress stylishly and beautifully, but modestly, because I have realized that the best guys will respect that."
Ave Maria isn't utopia, for modesty or anything else. It is, after all, college. But here, kids try to encourage each other to live differently.
"Being modest does not mean being ostracized from society," notes junior Sarah Pakalauk, who shares Charles' double majors. Nor does it mean dressing like a nun -- there can be real fashion in modesty.
Her younger sister, Sophie, who has the political bug, is an unabashed fan of another Sarah, Palin. When the former Alaska governor told a tax-weekend tea-party rally in Wisconsin that our leaders ought to fight like girls -- women who care about the future of their families and country, like the women who organized tea-party rallies around the country last year -- I thought of these men and women of Ave Maria. They are grounded, respectful of themselves and one another, desirous to learn, and generous of heart, looking forward to humbly but confidently engaging the broader culture.
Here's to graduation.