Notta and the Teed-Off Tee-Shirts

We are not always in business attire at my agency. Most days, we will don the good clothes as befitting our taste, but, from time to time, many of us put on blue jeans and tee-shirts. Like my students, who seldom wear anything else. ’m not talking the plain, white Hanes or Fruit of the Loom tees men wore to keep perspiration off their good clothes (and, for some, usually older men, they still do wear such shirts). I’m talking about the band tee, the sports team tee, the cartoon tee, even the artsy-fartsy tee – the shirts that fill at least one, if not more, than one drawer, bin, box or whatever they store their clothes in these days. Most of them are benign. Several are eye-catchingly beautiful. Some make no sense at all. A few express profound truths.

And then there are the so-called controversial ones.

“Oh bother!” Notta scoffed. “Everything is ‘controversial’ these days. You can tick people off by simply saying, ‘Good morning’.”

“Or by not saying it,” an early-bird student observed. “It really gets me when people stare at you, but won’t greet you.” She put her books down on the conference table we use for class. “Some folks might find your shirt controversial, Ms. Jody.”

I look down, as if I had forgotten what I’d pulled over my head this morning: medium blue tee-shirt with the words “I’m silently correcting your grammar” in silver across the chest. “Really?” I asked. “I thought this sentence was something of a cliché for us English teachers.”

The student shrugged, but Notta took up her theme. “They may feel you’re judging them as people because they can’t speak proper English. Like our ELL* students.”

I can’t say why, but that set up my defensive hackles; sign of these hyper-sensitive times, I think now in reflection. I said, . “You might notice that I never wear this shirt when the ELLs are in class. I never would, for the very reason you mentioned.”

“I know that,” Notta soothed, with that wicked grin of her, meaning she wasn’t done making her point. “But there are some of us native-speakers who might think the same thing. We don’t like no criticism of how we’uns talk, not even if we need it bad.” We all laughed.

“OK, so, if I chose this shirt this morning because I’m playing my Teacher-We-Should-All-Speak-Properly role this morning. Remember, we have those persuasive essays to write.” The student groaned. “Why did you put on the Power Puff Girls tee this morning?”

The student shrugged. “I felt pink today.”

“Do you suppose the rest of our class and anybody else wearing tee-shirts today chose the shirts for the same reason? That’s the way they feel this morning?”

“Either that,” Notta said, “or it was the only thing they had that was clean, or didn’t smell too bad.”

More laughter. After raising teenagers, Notta and I knew that choice process all too well. “But why do people buy the tee-shirts they buy? Is it only the color or the artwork on it? Or the catch-phrase written across it, front, back or both?”

“Well, if they really like a particular band or team,” the student offered, “they’ll wear the shirt that promotes them. I have a cousin who’s a big Chicago Cubs fan. Almost all the shirts he has have the big ‘C’ on them.”

“So it’s their way of saying, ‘I support this team or this band and you should know this about me.’”

“Well, I should hope so! I mean, who would want to wear the logo of a team they hated?”

“Fair enough. But what happens if your cousin walks into a place full of say, White Sox fans? Isn’t his gear kind of a challenge to the White Sox fans?”

“There might be some boos, and somebody might want to argue pitchers and batting averages, but I don’t think the other people would get all up in his face about it. Most people know different people like different teams. Same with music. We’re all different and it’s okay if you like a band somebody else hates. As long as you don’t force your likes on that other person. Isn’t that what you meant when you were talking respect, Mrs. Louden?”

“Spot on,” Notta said.

I suppressed the urge to tell her about sports hooligans and some of the violence that supporting one team over another has had in the past. “Then what about political or social logos or phrases or pictures? Those can be challenges, too, don’t you think? Or are they only expressing a point of view?”

The student studied me. She’d been in my class long enough to smell a current events lesson. “Are you talking about those old – “

“Watch your adjectives,” I warned.

“ – people at those stupid rallies wearing tee-shirts saying ‘f- your feelings’?”

I shrugged. “That’s an example. Some others also used profanity to describe someone who lost the election and isn’t even in public life anymore.”

“Like a dog with a bone that don’t know the bone is gone,” Notta said.

“’Doesn’t know,’” I told her, pointing at my shirt.

“Not so silent, are you?” she said.

“ANYWAY, are those shirts a challenge or a simple expression of those folks’ point of view?”

“You mean their point of view this week? Or this month? Until they get told to change the flavor?” Notta prodded.

I tried to wave her umbrage down a bit. “Which is it? Or is there something else to consider?”

The student thought for a moment. “Well, it could be their point of view, but it’s really one-sided, isn’t it? Don’t they realize that if they’re saying, ‘F- your feelings,’ somebody else has the equal right to say ‘F- your feelings’ right back? You can’t start a conversation that way.”

“No more than you can start one swinging bats at each other,” Notta agreed.

“All you’re going to start is a name-calling, cussing contest and nobody wins those. I mean, you can only say, ‘F- you’ so many times and nobody listens anymore. They start swinging just to shut the other guy up.”

“It is stupid,” Notta agreed. “But so’s poking people’s sore spots with poison-tipped words and then shifting the blame to somebody who wasn’t there to defend themselves in the first place. There’s a LOT of that going around these days.”

“Back on the point,” I said. “Do you think these folks want a conversation when they’re presenting themselves in these tee-shirts?”

The student stared shifting in her seat. I thought the one-on-one tutoring had become uncomfortable; however, it had rained this morning and I couldn’t rely on her classmates to come to her rescue since it was already fifteen minutes past the start of class.

Notta to the rescue! “Nobody’s going to know for sure what they want,” she said. “I don’t think most of them know. At best, they’re trying to start a conversation, but in a really lousy way, like we said. You don’t start problem-solving by cussing at each other. At worst, they’re taking after their Fearful Leader and doing it for the shock value, the in-your-face selfie.” She shook her head. “Worse than a bunch of immature hoodlums, I’d say.”

“And saying that would be as bad as using the tee-shirt to start a fight,” I pointed out. “That’s why schools prohibit tee-shirts with profanity or sex acts or words or anything that could cause a fight.”

“And here are the grandparents wearing those tee-shirts with profanity and fightin’ words,” Notta countered. “Some example they’re setting.”

“They’re only trying to make a point,” I said. I hoped there was a way to end this and get get back to paragraph composition.

As before, Notta found a way. “Really?” Notta pointed at me. “And what point are you making with that shirt?”

I smiled. “That I’m an English teacher and I don’t take no crap when I’m learnin’ you grammar.”

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