on students, apparel, and giving a shit

We started the first week of classes this past week, commencing just in time to have a break for Labor Day. With the fall, there’s still that nostalgic back-to-school feeling, even though a lot of students have summer classes and a lot of the traditional beginning in the fall isn’t, perhaps, what it used to be like. Still, there are new students everywhere, new confusions about room numbers and building designations, and that bliss of excitement and a certain suspended reality that accompanies the first few days.

One thing that I am always fascinated by is new clothing styles that come and go. Shirts get shorter and then longer and then shorter again. As our own children get older, we just hope that low-rise waistlines gradually make their way back up over the hips, and that perhaps the baggy, self-deprecating sweatshirts of the 90s will find their way back into wardrobes. This hope pretty much encapsulates all that we have become both as parents and as old curmudgeony citizens.

The fashion statement that caught me the most this week was not from The Gap (or wherever it is that the 18-year-olds shop these days), but from somewhere else, not on the beaten path — not even L. L. Bean — and I’m still trying to make sense of it. It was a typical loose fitting white t-shirt worn on the second day of class, our first lab for a science course for potential elementary school teachers. The t-shirt was in the back row on the body of an international student who introduced herself to me after the class, at which time I could verify what I’d thought I’d read in elegant black script with silver, sparkly trim you’d expect to say “princess,” yet it clearly stated:

        I don’t give a shit.

I thought that was odd. And I still do, and the more I think about it the more disturbed I am. This student came to me after class to confirm that she’s an international student from Asia, using very clear and competent but broken English. Her iPhone was always at her side during class, translating English into Chinese script. Her concern after class was about her lack of speed in understanding spoken English, and the hope that she could get some materials before class in order to prepare. So, there was this great combination of implicit statements, that she does give a shit and that she doesn’t understand the language I’m using as well as she’d like. And so I wondered more about the shirt. Was she the victim of some kind of joke? Was she the unwitting prey of some unscrupulous vendor? And, if either of those are possibilities, should I intervene in some way? (“Yes, I’ll make sure you can review some of my notes, and by the way, your shirt says ‘shit.’”)

But then there’s the other possibility, that this intentional and thoughtful international student is a genius of comedy and irony. Behind glasses, some slightly stunted English and her five-foot stature, she’s playing us and living out her art form. If anyone could get away with a “don’t give a shit” shirt, it’s the girl who can pretend that she doesn’t know what it means, while clearly caring about not only her studies but on making professors think extra hard and subsequently write about her potential plight.

And so I’m troubled, not by the statement of the t-shirt itself, but by the conflict I felt in trying to figure out if she was being ironic or if she had been the target of some prank that she wasn’t yet in on. Or maybe, quite simply, she just liked the shirt. I don’t know the answer to this. What I do know is that there’s a story there, like there’s a story in each of these people who grace my classes, and I can’t even begin to imagine what they all are.

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