Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code


By Bridget Farr

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A timely and thought-provoking novel about one girl's fight against gender inequality at her middle school and the lessons about her own privilege she learns along the way.

Margie Kelly's perfect skirt was dress coded on her very first day of middle school. Upset and embarrassed, Margie spends the whole day wearing oversized gym shorts. So much for starting sixth grade with confidence!

But when Margie realizes that the dress code is only applied to the female students and not the boys, Margie gets mad. Really mad.

The dress code is keeping girls stuck in detention all day and away from learning. The boys act like they own the school. And the teachers turn a blind eye to the hypocrisies taking place in the halls, classrooms, and clubs. Something has to change! And Margie knows just how to do it. She'll plan a school-wide protest with her best friend, Daniela, and fellow classmates Jamiya and Gloria.

But as Margie moves forward with her plans, she comes to realize some hard truths about herself. Will Margie recognize her own privilege and make meaningful change for all students?


Chapter 1

A scuffed wooden ruler with worn black numbers waits right between my eyes. Maybe Ms. Scott is going to rap my knuckles with it like I saw in one of the old movies Dad likes to watch on rainy days. That wrinkled teacher had tiny rectangular glasses at the end of her pointy nose and a really high bun at the top of her head, her hair wrapped up tight like the detonator to her dynamite. Her lips were pursed in a tight coil, the ruler in her hands ready to strike. Even though Ms. Scott looks like she could still be in college, she has the same rectangular glasses and high bun, so at the moment I’m panicking. I didn’t think teachers could do that anymore: whack your hands with a ruler. And I didn’t even do anything wrong! I’ve been in sixth grade for literally five minutes. I hadn’t even finished writing my last name, Kelly, on my handout.

I’ve followed all the rules since I came to this pale-blue classroom. I even got here a few minutes early, skipping the huge line at the water fountain so I wouldn’t be late. I went straight to the desk with my name on it and didn’t even try to switch the sticker so I could sit next to my best friend, Daniela, even though I saw a boy in the back row do it so he could sit next to his best friend. I didn’t smile or wave at the few other kids I recognized from elementary, either. I wrote my name only after Ms. Scott told us to start. And in print because my cursive isn’t that great. We barely practiced it last year.

I answered the silly “Would you rather…” questions she had on the board: “Would you rather have an elephant trunk or a giraffe’s neck?” Giraffe neck. “Would you rather wear clown shoes every day or a clown wig?” Clown shoes.

Would you rather stand behind your teacher’s desk while she holds a ruler in front of your face or show up to the first day of middle school wearing a diaper?

Diaper all the way.

Okay, probably not.

But I really wish she didn’t have that ruler in her hand.

“Margaret, did your family get a copy of the handbook at orientation?” Ms. Scott asks, resting the ruler on her denim skirt. Behind me pencils scratch as people finish their “Would you rather…” questions, the timer counting down the minutes until they’re ready to stare at me.

“I think so. My dad took all the papers.”

She smiles. “Okay. Well, he’ll need to look at it again, so he can review the dress code. Your skirt is out of compliance.”

I look down at the three perfect navy tulle tiers in my first-day-of-school skirt, each layer trimmed in sequins that swing when I walk. Last week when Dad and I went shopping at the Lone Star Mall, we had the skirt-versus-leggings discussion and how Texas is too hot in August for anything but a skirt. I didn’t want anything too princess-cupcake, but I couldn’t resist the shimmer of the purple and turquoise sequins. The skirt was perfect, like a chocolate-dipped Oreo. I run my hand along the bottom ruffle.

“I need to measure your skirt real quick, and then we can send you to the office to change if my assumption is correct. But I’m never wrong about this.”

Dad thought this skirt was perfect. Just like me. Just like my first day of middle school should be. Turns out Dad was wrong.

I flash a look over my shoulder to see if anyone is watching. Every head is down except for Daniela, who is looking at me as if her eyes are going to pop out of her head. “Are you okay?” she mouths. I snap my head around. Please don’t cry.

“Whew, it’s hot in here,” Ms. Scott says, her pale cheeks flushed red. She wipes a drip of sweat from her hairline before turning to the class. “You have two minutes to finish that warm-up, so we can start to get to know each other,” she calls. “It’s your first official assignment of sixth grade!” She whispers to me, “If you’ll just turn around quick, I have to measure from the back of the center of your leg.”

I slowly turn around, trying to find where to look. The clock? The “Classroom Expectations” poster written in Ms. Scott’s perfect teacher handwriting? Daniela? Definitely not Daniela. If I make eye contact, I will totally cry, and I cannot cry on the first day of middle school. The ruler feels cool against my skin.

“Yep. Exactly what I thought. Five and a quarter inches. Over an inch too short.”

“My dad bought it,” I whisper, the words catching in my throat. Normally we just shop online, but he said that for the first day of middle school, we could spend the whole day shopping at the mall together and even get frozen yogurt. Grandma Colleen was there, too, since she lives with us now, but he didn’t let her argue about how much money we were spending. The skirt wasn’t even on sale. Not even close to on sale. At $59.50 it’s the most expensive piece of clothing I own (except for my winter coat, but Dad says I’ll wear that for years since it never gets too cold in Teravista, Texas, a suburb just north of Austin).

Dad picked out the top, a white T-shirt with “Fabulous” written in shimmering turquoise letters with these little tassels that hang beneath. “Because you are fabulous,” he said. We tried on the whole outfit last Wednesday before he left for work in Chicago, and he took my first-day-of-school picture on the front porch even though it technically wasn’t. We tried to have Grandma take one of me and Dad with his phone, but she kept getting it blurry or putting her finger in it, so we only have the one of me. Dad said the outfit was perfect.

“It’s a great skirt, just not for school. You wouldn’t wear a bikini to school, right? Same thing with short skirts. No time at Live Oak Middle School for any distractions.”

I’m a distraction? Ms. Scott taps my shoulder, and I turn around. My cheeks flame with embarrassment.

“Take this note to the front office, and they’ll give your dad a call.” She scribbles on a small yellow notepad. “If he can’t bring you a change of clothes, they’ll find you something in the nurse’s office to wear. No one gets suspended for dress code on the first day.”

Suspended! I grab the note and rush to my desk, cramming my notebook and my perfect first-day-of-school mechanical pencil into my bag. I sneak along the edge of the classroom, hoping no one sees me, but of course they do. They’re all staring at me and my distracting skirt. One boy turns and whispers to his friend, but mostly everyone’s mouths just hang open in shock.

“Margie, what’s going on?” Daniela whispers, but I can’t open my mouth. I pull down on my skirt and race out the door.

Chapter 2

“We’ve got extra extra small or extra extra large. What’s your pick?”

Nurse Angela holds up two pairs of gym shorts that look like they’ve been in a locker for years. Are they even clean? She’s wearing scrubs with teacups on them, and she smiles, the only comforting thing in her bare office. I waited for twenty minutes in one of the plastic chairs outside after an eighth-grade office aide dropped me off; Nurse Angela was giving a sixth grader his meds. I was hoping she’d forget I was waiting. She didn’t.

Nurse Angela spreads the shorts out on her desk as if I’m supposed to judge between two prized dogs at the National Dog Show Grandma Colleen loves to watch at Thanksgiving. Both shorts will go down to my knees because they’re that baggy-gym-shorts style—but the extra-extra-small pair looks much cleaner. The stripe down the side is still crisp white, and the Live Oak Middle School emblem hasn’t started curling around the edges or been picked off by previous wearers. Still, there’s no way I can fit into the extra extra small. But I don’t know how I’ll keep the extra extra large from falling down as I walk around school.

“So?” Nurse Angela asks as she gives the shorts a little shake. Their stale smell floats into my nostrils. Bleachy? I hope so. I take the extra-extra-large pair.

“Thattagirl! You can change in here.”

She gestures toward a narrow door I thought was a closet, maybe is a closet. Please, oh, please may it have a little door that leads to Narnia or some other world so I don’t have to come out wearing someone’s stinky old gym shorts.

I open the door, and it’s only a bathroom. There’s a tiny window up in the corner, too high for me to reach, and no little escape hatch. I sit on the toilet seat lid with the shorts in my lap.

I don’t want to cry. Not on my first day of middle school.

I cried every day the first month of kindergarten.

I cried every day the first week of sleepaway camp.

I don’t want to cry on the first day of middle school.

But here I am using these old shorts as a tissue. They don’t smell as bad up close as I thought they would.

“Get movin’, little lady,” Nurse Angela calls through the closed door. Then, softer, “No one’s gonna care what you’re wearing.”

She knows nothing about middle school.

I change into the shorts, ignoring the mirror. In my backpack I find a hair tie to wrap around a corner of the waistband to keep them up, but then it gives me a weird tail. So I remove the hair tie and roll the waistband down three times instead, causing a doughnut effect around my hips. I walk back and forth between the sink and the toilet a few times, and if I push my hips forward or backward, the shorts don’t slide as much. I’m not sure which looks sillier, the tail or the lump, but nothing can be worse than losing my pants in the hallway. I finally look at myself in the mirror: my “Fabulous” shirt laughing at the disaster happening below. My curly hair’s expanding in the humidity, and behind my blue glasses my eyes are ringed in red. I flip over the St. Joan of Arc pendant Dad bought for my birthday last year, noticing I’ve already chipped my turquoise nail polish.

Setting my glasses on the miniscule sink, I splash a bit of water on my face and dry it with some toilet paper since the paper towel machine is empty. For a moment I’m grateful Dad won’t let me wear anything more than lip gloss so I don’t have black streaks down my face like sobbing ladies in movies. I fold up my skirt—the perfect skirt—and stuff it in my backpack. I hear Grandma Colleen’s voice in the back of my head. You think you have it rough? When I was a child in Ireland, we had to walk two miles to school with only a hot potato in our pocket to keep us warm.

Today, I would rather have the hot potato and the two-mile walk.

When I open the door, Nurse Angela is snacking from a bag of almonds. “You said your dad’s in Chicago, but is there anyone else who could bring you a change of clothes?”

The tears catch in my throat, and I hold really still, no breathing, no blinking until the feeling goes away. Last night on the phone, Dad kept apologizing for missing my first day. That’s why he let Grandma and me order Chinese takeout, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s not here when I need him. It’s only me and him (well, and now Grandma), since Mom died of breast cancer before I was two, so he tries to be around as much as he can. Up until a year ago he worked from home, so he was always hovering, practically smothering me with his desire to be a good dad. Then his company got bought by a firm in Chicago. Now he has an office in downtown Austin for weekdays and monthly trips to meet with his bosses in the Windy City. He’s constantly missing my first somethings. “No, I don’t have anyone else I can call.”

“You have your grandma listed as a contact. Can she bring you something?”

I shake my head, clutching my backpack closer to me. “She can’t drive anymore. She has cataracts.”

“Well, I guess you’ll just have to sport a little Live Oak pride today.”

I nod. I feel a lot of Live Oak shame today.

“You can head back to class now. Just let me write you a pass.”

I put my backpack on the floor and stand at the desk as she fills out a yellow pass with the messiest handwriting I’ve ever seen. The blue squiggles can’t possibly be words. The bell rings, and Nurse Angela looks at her watch. “Second period already?”

I missed all of first period. My first period of middle school. I won’t see Daniela now until lunch, I think. I didn’t get to check our schedules. We were supposed to do that in first period. My stomach clenches.

“Do you think I can stay here a little while? My stomach hurts.”

Nurse Angela looks up at me like I’m a little puppy left out in the rain. “That’s not your stomach hurting; that’s your pride.”

She hands me the yellow pass, and I grab my backpack, brushing off the dust that’s already clinging to the pink flamingo fabric. I yank my shorts up.

“Have a great first day!” Nurse Angela calls as I walk out the door.

She has got to be kidding.

As I walk down the crowded hallways, jostled by people running and laughing and loving their cute first-day outfits, I think of an alter ego, like a spy on a secret mission. If anyone asks, I won’t be Margaret Colleen Kelly today. I’ll be someone else. Someone lame. Someone who would wear rolled up gym shorts on the first day of school. And then tomorrow I can come to school with French braids or even a new hair color if Dad will let me, and no one will remember me as the girl with the baggy, stinky gym shorts lumped around her waist.

I stick close to the yellow lockers no kids use, watching the older girls pass by in faded skinny jeans and plaid shirts loosely hanging over tight tank tops. They don’t bother to look at me, too busy trying to sneak a peek at their phones while they walk.

“Ahhhhh, dress coooooooode!” someone yells, and I turn to see a tall boy pointing at me, his mouth open in laughter as he tries to get his friend to turn and look. I start to walk faster, bumping into someone’s shoulder. I notice a girl’s phone pointed in my direction. Is she filming me? Please don’t let her post this to Instagram! She flips her black hair over her shoulder and shoves the phone in her back pocket. Maybe it wasn’t about me at all.

“Margie!” Daniela calls from somewhere in the crowd behind me. “Margie, wait!” It’s only been a minute, and already my cover is blown. I’m instantly jealous when I’m reminded how perfect Daniela’s first-day-of-school outfit is for her: cuffed black jeans and a short-sleeved blue button-up with little birds all over it, her thick dark hair in a massive braid down her back. She’s been wanting to cut it short since last year, but her mom won’t let her. Grandma Colleen would call Daniela a “tomboy,” but no one says that anymore. Over the summer, Daniela finally stopped wearing exclusively summer camp T-shirts and one pair of light-wash blue jeans, but she still dislikes dresses and skirts. The only dress she ever wore was for her First Communion, and that’s only because her mom made her. She’s still figuring out her style, figuring out what (and who) she likes. Of course, Daniela’s not wearing makeup—she would never ever ever—but she doesn’t need it with her thick eyelashes and flawless brown skin. She’s never even had a zit. I haven’t, either, but any red spots will blare like sirens on my pale, freckled face.

“Get out of my way!” Daniela yells to some really tall boys who are playing keep-away with a bag of potato chips. “What happened, Margie? Where did you go? I saw you with Ms. Scott and…”

Daniela looks down at the gym shorts, her thick, black eyebrows raised. She touches my shoulder. “Did you get your… you know? I might have a jacket you could wrap around your waist.”

“No,” I say shrugging off her hand, even though it did feel nice. Daniela and I have been best friends ever since we ended up in the same second-grade class at Greenlawn Elementary and the same First Communion group at Saint Mark’s. She’s the only person who can calm me down, because unlike me, she never panics. When we’re getting crushed at summer league softball, she can still throw the perfect pitch. She got left in the museum bathroom on our fourth-grade field trip, and she didn’t cry or start running after the bus. She just went to the front desk and had them call the school. She even knew the number. She stresses about her grades, and she’s obsessed with Quiz Bowl, but for all other situations, she’s like the perfect firefighter or paramedic.

Daniela leans in to whisper, “Did you have an accident?”

“No! Gross! I’m not a little kid!” We’re blocking the hallway, so I pull her toward the lockers.

“Then what happened?”

“My skirt was out of dress code. Didn’t you see Ms. Scott measuring me?”

“Yeah, but she made you change? On the first day? That’s so harsh. Can your dad bring you some other clothes?”

“He’s in Chicago again! He doesn’t get back until tonight.”

“Oh,” she says, grabbing my hand. Daniela knows how much I hate having my dad gone all the time. “I’m so sorry. Your skirt wasn’t even that short.”

“Short enough to get me dress coded on my first day of school.” Tonight I’ll have to research any other violations in the student handbook Dad supposedly has. It’s probably somewhere in the desk drawer where he crams all the bank notices and school flyers. Who knows what other social-life bombs are waiting for me?

“You better go to class,” I tell her. “You’ll be late.”

“I’ll walk you to yours; I don’t want you to be alone.”

Daniela wouldn’t care if she was wearing dorky shorts on her first day. People always assume things about her anyway—that she’s not as smart because she speaks Spanish, that she loves soccer because she’s Mexican—so she doesn’t care about anyone’s opinions. Except for her parents. I wish I were that brave.

“I have a pass. Just go.”

“Are you sure? I can come with you.”

I shake my head, letting go of her hand. “I’ll be okay.”

I start walking toward the staircase that I think—hope—takes me to my math class.

“Don’t forget to meet me outside the eighth-grade building after school,” Daniela calls. “Quiz Bowl tryouts.”

I freeze. This can’t be happening. “It’s not today. Not till Wednesday.”

Daniela shakes her head. “They read an announcement in first period. It got moved to today. The teacher, Mr. Shao, has an appointment or something.”

Daniela and I have been waiting for Quiz Bowl tryouts since the beginning of fifth grade. Our social studies and math teacher, Ms. Mackenzie, is a trivia champion, and we always did our own competition at the end of every unit. Daniela and I aced all the in-class competitions. Ms. Mackenzie called us the Queens of Quiz. Wednesday we were going to show up and shock everyone that sixth graders could be the best. Even though Daniela spent the summer with her abuela in Ojinaga, Mexico, we still texted or called almost every day so we could work through all the middle school question packets and even one of the high school sets. I had the perfect outfit (blue jean shorts, polka-dot top) picked out for Wednesday’s tryout.

This can’t be happening. I can’t be the Quiz Bowl Queen when I’m dressed like a joker.

“Don’t worry. It’s going to be great,” Daniela yells as the bell begins to ring. “Maybe you can change back into your real clothes before tryouts. See you at lunch!”

My gym shorts and I slink down the hallway, hoping a seat will be left in the back of every class.

Chapter 3

Quiz Bowl captains Marcus and Mikey hover over their friend Sean, who is setting out the buzzer system in Mr. Shao’s freezing classroom. In front of them are two rectangular tables in face-off position. Together Marcus and Mikey stand like twin guardians of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, ready to decide who’s worthy and who’s not. Black identical twins, the brothers share the same athletic arms bursting from their green Live Oak Middle School polos, and the same haircuts—short on the sides with tight curls on top. Both have perfect smiles and the kind of eyes you could get lost in. Yes, they’re that cute. Only Mikey’s glasses set them apart. I’ve been in middle school all of eight hours, and already I know they’re the popular boys. Nerds and athletes. Marcus has a girlfriend. Mikey has tons of people gushing over him at lunch. Everyone at school knows them and loves them and wants to be them. And they are the captains, the Kings of Quiz Bowl.

But Daniela and I are here, too. Hopefully, there’s room for two sets of royalty.

We’re the only sixth-grade girls in the room. Two of only three girls, when you count eighth grader Jamiya, but she doesn’t talk to us. Probably because she’s already on the team. Or because we’re sixth graders. Maybe because I look like a dork since I wasn’t allowed to change. Jamiya’s wearing black high-rise jeans (in dress code), a T-shirt with pink hands making a peace sign (also dress code), and her natural hair pulled into a puff at the top of her head. Her fingers fly as she taps on her phone and occasionally makes fun of the boys. She’s the team’s social media manager, and I’ve read all her perfect Instagram posts from last season. She’s funny and smart and a great photographer, somehow making buzzer systems and question packets look cool. She clearly doesn’t mind that she’s one of the few girls here.

Daniela and I wait along the wall, leaning against posters of American history that were probably printed before I was born and faded school projects that have been hanging for years. Four boys from sixth grade and two from seventh are also here to try out.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be all boys, but at least it’s not all white kids,” Daniela whispers.

I scan the room, noticing that the group is more diverse than I saw on last year’s Instagram posts. Maybe the new coach, Mr. Shao, had something to do with it. We watch Sean rush around, running a hand through his unruly red curls as he untangles the buzzer system. Any moment we’ll be moving on to round two of the tryouts, and I’m sure everyone is doing exactly what I am: trying to churn up some confidence by reviewing all the facts I learned this summer.

For round one, we took a twenty-five-question multiple-choice test. The seventh and eighth graders already on the team joked around, sitting on top of the desks and rocking them back and forth as they talked about some app I’ve never heard of. They should have been quiet while we were testing, but it didn’t matter. I only missed three questions. I think.

“You better get movin’ since you’ve only got twenty minutes left,” Mr. Shao calls from across the room. His desk is a mess: papers piled as high as his computer screen and an old banana peel on top of one stack. You’d think that as the Quiz Bowl adviser, he would be one of those adults who wished they were back in middle school, so they could still be on the debate team or standing on the stage at nationals answering the final question, but Mr. Shao doesn’t seem to care about Quiz Bowl. He introduced himself when we got here, but then went straight to his desk where he’s been ever since. He seems more like a babysitter than a coach.

Finally, Sean untangles the last cord and nods to the Kings. Marcus looks down at the stack of tests on Mr. Shao’s podium.

“We’re doing five to a team instead of the normal four so we can get through everyone. Make a name tag when you sit down, and be sure we can read it. Mikey, you lead this team…” He pauses to assess the group. “Boy in the meme shirt, seventh graders, and girl with the braid. Take a seat at Table One.”

I tap Daniela’s hand, and she squeezes mine back. “Queens of Quiz,” she whispers, and I smile, knowing we got this. Hoping we do. She waves as she picks up her backpack and sits at Table One.


  • Praise for Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code:
    "Margie is bright, earnest, and appealing, and the issues of dress codes and friendship conflicts will be relatable for many middle school readers. A thoughtful treatment of sexism and white privilege for tweens."—School Library Journal
  • Praise for Pavi Sharma's Guide to Going Home:
"Debut author Bridget Farr keeps the story moving swiftly, skillfully weaving in moments of tension that allow her diverse cast of flawed yet sympathetic characters to shine."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Well imagined [and] undeniable appeal."—Booklist
  • "A fresh, feel-good story that will make readers cheer and appreciate the home and family they may take for granted."—School Library Journal
  • On Sale
    Jul 13, 2021
    Page Count
    320 pages

    Bridget Farr

    About the Author

    Bridget Farr is an author, actor, and educator. She's been an elementary and middle school teacher her entire career, most recently a vice principal at an urban public school. She has a masters from the University of Texas at Austin. Bridget is also an actor and producer and has starred in award-winning plays, produced a popular theater series, and written a short film. She is the author of Margie Kelly Breaks the Dress Code and Pavi Sharma's Guide to Going Home. Bridget lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Shiva, and the neighborhood cat, Sherman.

    Learn more about this author