The Obscene Shirt: Lessons from a Lion

The folks who really know me understand exactly why I have a large black and white photo of the Cowardly Lion taped to inside of my office door. It is an ever-present reminder of one of my “areas for growth.” Like a lot of people with, what I like to consider a “high aptitude for cowardice,” I go out of my way to avoid confrontation; I, in fact, dread conflict (which is actually not such a helpful quality for a school head), and I happen to think the late Rodney King posed just the right question when he asked, “Can we (just) get along?”

A few years ago, I found myself in an airplane, sitting directly behind a man who was wearing, what I considered, an offensive t-shirt. While I’d have been less than thrilled to see anyone wearing clothing of this nature, it really bothered me to see a guy around my age sporting sexually explicit attire. Because we were flying to Calgary, I had over 3 hours to think about this situation, and I’ll come back to the issue of time because it is important.  Before telling you how this t-shirt situation played out, though, let me pause here to tell you a story about someone who didn’t have the benefit of time.

A while back, the head boy at another boys’ school found himself in a tough spot. He was in a locker room after practice, of course, where and when these kinds of situations always seem to occur, and he was about to take a shower when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something that made him feel instantly uneasy. A number of Grade 12 boys were calling out to him, encouraging him in no uncertain terms to join them in the fun. They had picked up a teammate, a fellow senior who had evidently annoyed them throughout the soccer season, and they were about to carry him towards the washroom, where they intended to give him a swirly. Let me emphasize that the head boy, a good and decent boy, felt he did not have time to think things through. And let me also emphasize that the head steward is always in a difficult position because, while he wants to have a good relationship with the faculty and administration, he also really needs to maintain his “street cred” with the student body, especially with the members of his own class.

What went through the head boy’s head was this: “I’ll grab the kid’s elbow and be a part of the group. The guy will cry out once he gets to the washroom, and we’ll just put him down and laugh about it.”  With this thought in mind, he went along with the group, but of course things didn’t go according to plan. The boy didn’t cry out, and the group didn’t stop. And afterwards, the victim sat in a corner of the locker room in a fetal position and he cried. The head boy was already feeling guilty about what had just happened when someone grabbed a phone and took a picture of the crying soccer player, and that picture went viral, and before the head boy knew what hit him, he was sitting in the principal’s office, where he was told that he was no longer the head boy; that there would be a meeting with his parents later that day; that he was now on probation; and that all of the colleges and universities to which he had applied would immediately be informed of his change of status.

Like I said, the head boy felt he didn’t have the opportunity to think. And while he certainly wasn’t a bad guy, what he did – in that moment – was, and the consequences for his bad decision went way beyond anything he could have possibly anticipated.

Now that I’ve killed the joy of the day, let me return to the scene of two frumpy middle-aged men, riding in coach, on a plane bound for Calgary, a city whose ironic name underscores my narrative. Because I had 3 hours to ponder my options, I came to the conclusion that the best place to address my fellow passenger would be in the baggage claim area. That way, in case it got ugly, we could both – ok, ok, I – could flee the scene of the crime. Let me also somewhat sheepishly admit that I was heartened by the fact that my fellow flyer was something less than a dead ringer for a young Clint Eastwood. I once heard a psychologist say that, whenever 2 men meet for the first time, the first question each has in the back of his head (from caveman days) is “Can I take this guy?” (An aside: the same psychologist claims that, whenever 2 women initially meet each asks, “Am I thinner than she?”) I can’t comment on the latter, but I think the former may be right.

Anyway, after securing my luggage, I gingerly approached my counterpart and asked him, “”Do you mind if I ask you a question? (I have found that in conversations as in classes, it’s often helpful to start things off with a question.) When he nodded in the affirmative, I continued. “Do you feel funny about wearing a shirt like that? Because I’ve got to tell you, if my kids were with me, it would really bother me to see you wearing that.”

He looked at me for a second and said nothing. I’d like to think he was (pat biceps) sizing up the situation. But then he blurted, “Yea. I am a little self-conscious.” And he put on his jacket and walked away.

A bit anti-climactic I know but the story offers 3 “take aways” for you on this last Monday in March:

1. I am no hero, and I freely admit that if the stranger were the size of Mr. Hefernan, I would have said nothing other than, “I really like your shirt! Think it comes in a smaller size?”

2. I admit I was ticked off. It really bothered me that this guy would try to inflict his sordid view on sexuality so publicly. I may have read “The Catcher in the Rye” too many times and in the process developed an acute case of the Holden Caulfield syndrome. So point 2 is that, as a schoolteacher and a father, I had an emotional investment in the issue. Some things, I hope, bother you, too, on occasion.

3. Let me also admit that, if I had walked past this guy on a street corner, I would not have said a thing. It was only the long plane ride that gave me the time to think through options – time that former head boy never had.

I mention all of this now because we are in what passes for springtime in Toronto. New teams are forming. There will be lots of time spent in locker rooms, and next weekend we have our Batt Ball, with its own set of social issues and inter personal complications. I hope you don’t find yourself in a tough spot any time soon, but we don’t live in a hermetically sealed environment, and you may end up in a situation where you’ll have to make a decision—a decision in a hurry. I hope that you’ll keep your pause button handy; that you’ll give yourself the time you need to think things through; that you’ll remember that it’s always better to at least ask a question than it is to go along with the flow of group think. And if nothing else, I hope you’ll think of the Cowardly Lion and remember his philosophy:

“What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the “ape” in apricot? What have they got that I ain’t got?  Courage!”



9 thoughts on “The Obscene Shirt: Lessons from a Lion

  1. I like this post a lot, Jim. I think once one takes the decision to confront, one has to decide that “winning” the confrontation is not the goal. The goal is some sort of change in the offensive behaviour. And to do that, especially with a stranger, means starting by honestly and politely letting the offender know about your own discomfort. That you did so, and then moved to the next level: calling him to stand on higher moral ground by referencing the effect the shirt might have had on your kids, was very politic.

    And you’re right. Time is a complete luxury in most difficult ethical situations, more’s the pity.

    I think you’re a very savvy CL!

  2. Hi Mr. Chips!
    Enjoyed you note about airplane and bad taste shirt. I had a similar situation. I was in New York at a dinner/movie theater. A couple next to me, in their thirties had just finished their meal when the movie started. The man opens up his cell phone. The glow was surprisingly bright. I was very annoyed and was thinking I should ask him to turn it off. After all we payed a lot for this dinner movie.

    But then my Detroit teen age life style intervened. He looked big and strong. I wasn’t afraid as much as I was worried about a confrontation. My date was sitting next to me. I thought what if he turns to me and says…#%*¥ you! A fight???? Suddenly she leans over and says in a loud voice which could be heard all around us. “Turn off that cell phone”.

    The man’s date or wife looked ashamed..he complied. I told
    My date that I was about ready to do what she did..but hesitated
    just a bit when she intervened. I don’t think she believed me.
    Do you?

  3. Jim,

    I have often thought to tell people ahead of time that I am not a hero so that they will not expect me to do anything or be one. I think you did as much as you could. I think the airline should tell people that clearly offensive material should not be on display aboard. However, I would not say you lacked courage. You did what most people did not do, as they was not line waiting to tell the guy their reaction. You could have offered him shirt to wear over the one he had but I think he would have thought you to be a wise guy. You never know what he was thinking as he walked away. Maybe he did change his shirt because of your question. Good job, Batman.

  4. A good story not about huge heroics, but about how not-so-huge actions can make a difference too — you don’t have to run into a burning building to do the right thing…

  5. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen such t-shirts or bumper stickers and wanted to say something. I never do, of course. Nothing you say resonates more with me than “I, in fact, dread conflict.” Bertie Wooster here. Anyway, my rationalization usually goes something like this:

    1. What good will it do? Oafs will be oafs.
    2. Why give them the satisfaction? “The great unwashed” (my mother’s favorite locution) do offensive things in the hope of getting a rise out of the polite, i.e. the contemptibly effete, the namby-pambies. Don’t sink to their level.
    3. I’ll probably get beat up. Better play it safe.

    I wish I could even aspire to the Cowardly Lion’s bluster–at least he’s pretending to be brave, which is 90% of real bravery. Maybe masking family dysfunction one school event at a time is 90% of real family harmony, too. The Downton Abbey approach to life; always keep up appearances.

    Nice job, as always. Your boys are lucky to have you up there pestering their consciences.

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