As a kid I am sure I always wanted to “be cool.” Flipping through some second and third grade writing projects recently I found several mentions of Jake, the coolest kid in class and someone who was definitely not my friend, yet I went out of my way to name-drop him when I could. “Played soccer at recess with Jake.” “Was on Jake’s winning kickball team.” I suspect my contribution to any athletic success was minimal but I had the pride of being able to tell myself and my friends that I was on Jake’s winning team.
When middle school arrived and I actually started to gain some athletic ability, the need to be cool never waned. Being committed to basketball, it was suddenly all about wearing the right athletic gear, practicing (or appearing to be practicing) a lot more often and having cool headphones. Unfortunately I did not have cool headphones, or a portable CD player, or the right athletic gear.
One of the most contentious pieces of clothing I adopted then were a-cut undershirts or “wife-beaters” in common slang. They fit perfectly under a basketball jersey without showing, whereas the guys with white t-shirts looked conservative and awkward. T-shirts under the jersey were the public way of declaring that you were still uncomfortable with your body and its changes during teenage years. Unseen shirts under the jersey said you were confident and comfortable.
The contention over the shirts, at least in our household, was the name. They are formally called “a-shirts” (in contrast with t-shirts) because of their cut. You can roughly see it when you look at them. But most everyone I have ever met calls them “beaters,” short for “wife beaters.” My mom was adamant that we were not calling them that in her house. So they had a bi-polar identity for me. Call them a-shirts to keep mom happy and beaters to everybody else because, well, that’s what they are called.
I vividly remember a conversation with my mom where I insisted the “beaters” term was no big deal. “Mom,” I argued, “it’s just a word. It’s empty and doesn’t mean anything. Somebody who wears one isn’t a wife beater or something!”
Not too long ago I was digging through digital archives on my ancestors and I came across a photo of someone I never knew. A direct ancestor of mine, he was a rotten person. Mistreated his wife and kids, walked out on his family to have a new one, the whole bunch. A really disgusting person by all accounts, and my flesh and blood too.
This photo shows him standing proudly, in front of his home I assume, wearing nothing but slacks, and of course, a wife-beater.
The skeleton of empty words was suddenly animated by the flesh and blood of this guy and his actions. This man standing proudly, wearing his own identity. The words of his shirt speak as loudly as the sandwich board advertising $5 pizzas or going-out-of-business sales.
No such thing. They ring with meaning far beyond what middle school me could have envisioned. The words are sharp, they are biting, and in my flesh-and-blood’s case, they are true.
I won’t use those words any more if I can help it. Because they are real. They mean something. Somebody suffered because someone was those words. Those words were part of someone’s identity.
And I am not that. I refuse to be that. I reject it. And with it, I reject those words.