the perfect t-shirt

There are few things I dread more than the beginning of the school year.

It’s not the students I dread, however. I like students. Even freshmen. We keep some boarders, and as they drift back into our orbit I like to ask them what they read over the summer. Or intended to read.

They have great stories and high expectations. College may be their last experience with fresh starts, which began with new crayons in first grade. All their life the fall has been a chance to start over. It’s easy to wish them well.

It’s not the teaching I dread either. I’m always choosing new textbooks and looking for new resources. All summer I’ve been reading about the things I teach, trying to understand them better.

This summer I’ve been reading Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little,a hot new book by linguist and professional namer Christopher Johnson. He writes about the techniques for writing briefly but well, twitter updates and advertising slogans for example. My advertising students need to understand this. So do I.

So, no, it’s not the teaching I dread. Or even the administrative aspects of my job. I like to create or improve new programs. I’m even getting a handle on program assessment, which isn’t too bad once you turn it into a game.

But the all-day faculty meetings? Well, those I dread. One year I even scheduled a colonoscopy so I wouldn’t have to go. But thankfully this year they avoided the thing I most fear. Matching t-shirts.

Seriously, I wouldn’t get up in the morning and put on a t-shirt unless I was going to work on a sewer or something. I keep a couple around for just that sort of work, but typically it’s not something I wear. So when they practically made us put them on one year, so we could be on color-coded teams, I almost went home.

In my view, unintentional community is pretty cool. People share goals and stories and then serendipity happens. They laugh and enjoy the connections they had not expected. But forced community? I’m no fan.

Or of teams generally. I realize I was hardly ever picked in elementary school. And a high school PE teacher once told some kids if they didn’t shape up he would put me on their team. So I’m not a fan of teams, even though my kindergarten teacher said I played well with others.

(Not really. I didn’t go to kindergarten. I started first grade a year early, which explains why no one wanted the little kid on their team and by third grade I didn’t want to be on their team either.)

But you get the idea. I don’t mind working with others. Or playing either. I just don’t want to wear the same t-shirt you do. Yes, it’s my problem. But I don’t want to look like you or be like you, because it’s our differences that provide room for growth and grace.

As much as community may depend on common goals and values, it is best experienced when we celebrate achievements that arise from our varied perspectives and contributions. It’s our differences for which we need each other.

Fortunately there were no t-shirts this year. The perfect t-shirt, after all, is the one you don’t have to wear. And neither was there too much manufactured enthusiasm or needless repetition, the bane of corporate meetings everywhere.

It was a good start, actually, in spite of some bad news. Headwinds, the president of the university called them. The challenges facing higher education today need not be enumerated here. But he handled the news about our own challenges with more transparency and humility than any college president I’ve known, and I’ve worked for a half dozen others.

I was glad to have a sense that an adult was in charge. I was happy no one tried to turn it into a party, or worse, summer camp. And I was even happier that no one expected me to wear a t-shirt.

The community we need will have to be much deeper than that.

22 thoughts on “the perfect t-shirt”

  1. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll add it to my Goodreads list.

    I was one of the people who had to wear a team t-shirt that day. However, I was just glad that as a new employee I did not have to run through a tunnel 🙂

  2. I appreciate the support for “unintentional community”. “Intentional community” seems to be all the buzz in Christian circles. There’s a lot of pressure to implement “intentional community” in the church, so much so, that it seems to me to sometimes crowd out what you call “unintentional community”. What to do about this, I’m not sure, but it seems that we could plan for fewer ecclesiastical programs (and no, I’m not advocating no programs beyond Sunday, just fewer). Perhaps too we could plan for more exhortation to living out the “one another” commands within our own homes and callings and in good old fashioned hospitality, that is, in a way that honors our various callings in the world and in our families.

    1. I’m expecting to do a couple more posts at some point on “unintentional community.” Intentional community seems redundant to me. There has to be some intention. But it’s the stuff that reflects God’s sovereign work and His gracious spirit that makes the church strong—not just our intention.

  3. I’m all for brevity. Was it Hemingway that wrote the six word story? “Baby shoes for sale, never used.” That is genius.

    I am all for unity, that is what God desires of us, “One Spirit, one faith, one body.” But, uniformity has draw backs as you have so aptly pointed out. Although, I do love the synchronization of teamworks, like the way the body parts work together for health. Isn’t it interesting all the body parts never have to wear the same color t-shirt, yet it is the best example of team work. Gotta admire the Creator.

    1. Hard to match that metaphor. 🙂 The body remains my favorite metaphor about the ways things should work in corporate life—which is why we call it corporate life in the first place.

  4. What I miss most about school is differing perspectives like this. All I wear are t-shirts, but I can SO appreciate people who don’t want to wear them (much like I try to avoid ascots – so far, it’s been relatively easy, but I’m ready for a fight).
    It seems like Twitter and Facebook are ‘open’ to differing perspectives, but the internet is one of the worst places for disagreement, as body language and tone are completely missed.
    I miss sitting in class, whether listening, participating, or just fighting to keep my eyes open (really? 7:45am??). Even when I struggled those days, there almost always seemed to be an “ah-ha” moment that would wake me out of my 8am haze and bring me into the discussion.
    I even enjoyed teaching at Western (though legally, the teacher who sat behind the desk with his latest MEA newsletter did all the teaching, while I merely guided the students along his curriculum’s predetermined path…apparently). I loved SEEING those ah-ha moments when they occurred. And while it seemed like there were only a few really engaged students, it was always rewarding to see them ‘get it.’ And to find out later that students I had written off as uninterested had gotten quite a bit from a particular lesson.
    Thanks for keeping this blog updated…I may not always comment, but I love reading it, and I love being taken back to class. And I REALLY appreciate good writing (topically, stylistically and grammatically). I get so tired of poor grammar on the internet. I even find myself texting in long form.

  5. Great comments about unintentional community and forced community! As a Church planter I want to see God raise up (Divine providence) unintentional community for His glory.

  6. Great post!

    I remember last summer being forced to wear the uniform for Youthworks: Matching T-Shirts. They weren’t that un-cool, it’s just that like you said, having them forced upon us made them not cool. I still have one of the t-shirts from the summer to remember the other great memories, but I remember it took me about 3 months before I actually felt okay with wearing one again, and it was certainly weird.

    As for reading books: Val and I mostly stuck to Huckleberry Finn this summer, and The Five Love Languages. We’re still working on finishing both, but we will.

    I’m sure the school appreciates having you on the team.

    1. Glad you guys were reading. (Katie and I have been doing Pride and Prejudice this summer.) And i agree. Forced anything is usually uncomfortable. But sometimes necessary. I think the idea of t-shirt I’m thinking about here is different than the idea of uniform. When the issue is identity (who is in charge, who is on which team) as opposed to community it makes more sense.

  7. I’ve always hated forced teams. I was shocked when I ended up liking my CORE group, but they didn’t make us wear matching shirts. Although, matching shirts do at least make me stay very close to my group. That way anyone who sees me in the ugly shirt at least knows I was forced to wear it.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll add it to my list.

    1. I traveled with a tour group in Israel once and we all had to wear matching hats. Had some logistical value I’m sure, but I hated it. There were ball caps, and, well, you’ve seen my hats. Not my style.

      Let me know what you think of the book.

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