"I don't know the exact circumstances," the principal said, "but there was an argument in art class, and Dylan scratched Gary's face and tore his shirt."
I was surprised. Dylan? My adorable little first-grader who'd never been in trouble in his life?
But then I was horrified. Gary is African-American and my son is white. Our school is nearly all-white, and I lead a seminar on racism and other issues of equity and diversity for parents at the school. Gary's mom, Sharon, is a participant in my seminar. Why did it have to be Gary?
When I called Sharon, she sounded tired and upset. We shared our confusion about what had happened between our kids, who have never particularly been friends, but never expressed any antipathy, either. Both are nice, happy boys.
Her husband reported that Gary's face would be OK, but it was a real scratch. And Sharon let me in on another part of the upset: It was Gary's favorite shirt. And hers, too. "It's torn right above the pocket. I'm sure it can't be fixed."
"I'm so sorry," I responded quickly. "Of course we'll buy him a new shirt." You can never replace a favorite shirt, we both knew. Still, it was the only option.
Just before we hung up, I had an inspiration. "Sharon? Would you send home the blue shirt, so I can take a look at it? I'm a good needlewoman. I might be able to repair it."
She was skeptical, but game. "That's kind of you to offer," she said. "I'll send it to you through backpack mail."
When it arrived, it was easy to see why this was
both mother and son's favorite shirt. The corduroy fabric felt like velvet, and the color was midnight blue. Definitely irreplaceable. And definitely defaced, with a horizontal rip above the pocket and without a seam in sight to hide the tear in. It sat, somewhat accusingly, on my bedside table while I ruminated.
Then one evening, I took it up and experimented with creating a new seam above the pocket, tucking the raggedy bits neatly inside. I couldn't pretend this never happened, but I mended it neatly, with care. Then I thought of another idea.
Dylan and I sat down together and composed a note to go with the mended shirt. "Dear Gary," we wrote. "Your mom told us this is a favorite shirt of yours, and we can see why. It's a very special shirt! We are very sorry Dylan tore it. Even though we can never make it as good as new again, we have tried to mend it. And we hope the place where it was torn and fixed will remind you that friendships are stronger than cloth. Love, Dylan and his mom."
Sharon expressed amazement when she saw the shirt, and later shared how touched Gary was by the note. We had done our best, and I hoped that would be good enough. Chapter closed.
Months later, Sharon stopped me in the school courtyard at carpool time and said, "Jo, that's Gary's favorite shirt." It took me a moment to understand what she meant. The shirt that Dylan had torn.
"He wears it all the time," she said. "And you know that note you wrote? We put it in a scrapbook we keep for him. It really means a lot to him. It's a real treasure."
Last week, Gary ran up to Dylan as we were leaving school and quietly whispered, "Dylan? Ask me over to your house sometime, OK?"
Dylan beamed back, eagerly agreeing. They have become friends. And I noticed that Gary was wearing his favorite shirt.