Wearing the school hoodie, drinking from bottles embossed with the school logo, or wearing school-masks are old and simple ways to express belonging to and loving your school. So why is it a big deal that Fényi Jesuit School started promoting school hoodies, logo-embossed drinking bottles and even their own face masks?

Until 2020 the students of the 25-year-old school wore the school tie and badge with a dark suit exclusively when it was compulsory, namely for national holidays and exams. Every other time the expected dress code is ‘smart casual’ for school. You saw no school scarf, vest or jumper, just the old tie and badge for a few times a year, until 2020 when P. László Elek SJ designed a simple maroon hoodie with the letters JEZSU (widely used nickname of the school) written on the chest.

The popularity of the hoodie is a sign that times change, says Mr Tamás Földházi, head of History Department. ‘We have to understand that while in western societies symbols and uniforms signify community, unity and belonging, for Hungarians these used to carry meanings of forced collectivism, egalitarianism and uniformity. Also, while material affluence and individualism of a society are in direct correlation, Hungarians have become a lot more individualistic than nations with similar GDPs.’

The reasons for that lie in history. Even good things, like modernization that started 200 years ago, were forced on us by an oppressive power, not to mention the bad things, during 50 years of  Communist dictatorship. The resistance to forced collectivism and uniformity caused people to seek individual techniques for success. Such individualism has made community building especially difficult in Hungary, and this is where the Church and Christian schools have played a great role ever since in forming and strengthening communities.

During Communism it was compulsory for all children to be members of the Communist Youth Organization and at festivals and ceremonies wear its military-style uniform. On ordinary days children had to dress in an ugly, shapeless, dark blue overcoat made of cheap nylon to cover societal differences at school. This may be one of the reasons why 25 years ago the first parents all voted against school uniforms.

25 years later however, Hungarian children of today have no direct experience of totalitarianism or forced egalitarianism, only heard about it in history class or from their grandparents. They are more open to accept symbols that signify their belonging to a community.

Dr. Edit Bukovszki vice director of pedagogy believes the wearable symbols strengthen the community and are powerful means of communication. ‘ In our fragmented and fluid world they may provide an anchor for children to hold on to. Children, especially the youngest ones first may just enjoy the things as cool and trendy, and are not necessarily  conscious of the shared value system and behavioural codex behind them, and what the wearers communicate to one another and to the outside world. But later on as they grow and mature these objects become the symbols of their forming identity. The hoodie and the mask are not for hiding, but for expressing our values, faith, and belonging.’

27-year-old Domonkos Kajtor SJ serving his magisterium at the school thinks the school hoodie is not only a new community strengthening tool, it also helps children build up their own personal identity. ‘Nowadays defining one’s own identity is getting more and more difficult. First of all, identity is not stagnant, it is more like a process. We all have so many shifting roles and belong to so many micro-cultures; we change jobs, change families, move homes,  so our identities become like an ever-changing patchwork made up of ever so tiny pieces. Growing up in a society like that is not easy for young children who are like tender plants needing to grow strong roots and draw nutrition from the soil. The school where they go for 4 or 8 years may provide this nutrient-rich, solid soil where they can grow strong and healthy. Presently they simply enjoy the tangible objects, love wearing the Jezsu hoodie, because they think it is cool and comfortable, and anyway, their friends wear it too. They just wear the school mask, and enjoy drinking from the logo embossed bottle because it is fun,  but with time these will be filled with meaning.

It is important that through our work we fill these symbols with substance. It is as if there was some caution among Hungarian Jesuits against emphasizing outside appearances or formalities. In Hungary formalities and uniforms have carried negative connotations because of historical reasons. And yet, there is a desire in humans to have a clearly defined framework, a shape and a form. These symbols and objects are quite easy for young children to relate to.  We must strive to keep a balance of form and contents, as P. László Örsy SJ, 99-year-old Hungarian theologian once suggested; if only we could be attentive to appearances, so that they are filled with the deepest substance!’

So the good news: Apart from keeping them warm and cozy on winter days, the school hoodie is a simple but effective way to help children make sense of themselves and the world around them.