Max and I Match Wits And Hats

In my fifth year of teaching, my class included a boy I'll call Max. Perhaps you know him? He wore a hat.

In fact, Max was known as "The Hat." He was inseparable from his leather 10-gallon, pheasant-feathered, cowboy hat. He was a pint-sized Pecos Bill, right down to his Levis jacket and cowboy boots; a diminutive young man who peered over large aviator glasses and always had his nose in a science fantasy novel. And he always, insistently, obstinately, intrenchedly wore his hat. The hat was so large, it arrived before he did. His stubborn individualism was the source of amusement from teachers and derision from students. Thank goodness he was all hat and no cattle.

The school had a rule about hats. It went like this: "No hats." Whenever I asked Max to remove it, within minutes the hat would reappear on his head. By October, I was fed up with polite reminders about removing the hat. Now it was about respect.

But Max was perfectly capable of bringing to bear the full weight of the last thousand years of Western philosophy in his suit to be allowed to wear the hat continuously. He daily articulated the insidiousness of tradition, manners, fashion versus individual rights, etc. as I invoked terms like "appropriateness," "decency," "clothing suitable to the occasion." My conversation with him about "learning to pick your battles" simply inspired Max to choose this as his battle. The showdown came: "If you don't take off that hat...." In our meeting in the office of the experienced and reasonable school head, detente prevailed. Max could wear the hat in the building, but not during class. Win-win.

But Max was not done teaching me a lesson, unbeknown even to him.

At the parent conference the next week, Max's architect father commended the compromise strategy. "Stubborn, isn't he!" he empathized. "He's a funny kid," he went on. "Did you know that he understands the concept of proportion? It's something that's very difficult to teach, even in graduate school. He comes to my office, looks at my building drawings, then gives criticism as to why certain features look askew. He's usually right.

"And I'm always amazed at what happens when we walk through our neighborhood. He's on a first-name basis with everyone: the grocer, the laundry man, deli clerks. He's fascinated by other people and their work. When the power or telephone company has people working in a manhole, he stops to ask what they're doing. Everyone knows Max because he's inquisitive."

So the kid in the cowboy hat had an intuitive sense of the golden mean. In a style beyond his years, he honored and connected with other lives in his community. He knew the neighborhood, and the neighborhood knew him. While he may not have shared my sense of "choosing his battles," he had determination, self-confidence, powers of rational argument.

A friend whose attorney son went through the "cowboy hat phase" says that you get the kids you need. In other words, if we listen closely, our children or our students are telling us not only who they are, but also who we are. They bring us face to face with our former roles and elucidate some of the wonderful, needful conundrums and discontinuities of our own development. Just when you think you understand the meaning of the costume, the child actor becomes a whole new character.

Which leads me to admit there was something familiar about Max's sartorial distinction. I recall my own eighth-grade shopping trip to the Chess King store, during which my mother patiently indulged my desire for chartreuse bell-bottoms and a bright purple butterfly shirt. "Are you sure you'll actually wear these?" was the only hint of reprobation, carefully disguised as pragmatism. "I will," I said.

And I did. I even had a hat: a broad-brimmed, green fedora. Remember Arlo Guthrie? I was quite groovy - all day, every day, and I took my own sweet time. Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had parents and teachers who knew that I was a work in progress.

I am not aware of Max's present costume - architect? pilot? circus performer? - but by December of that year he had switched to a discreet Air Force beret. I missed the cowboy hat. Because it was my hat, too.

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