Credit: George Danby

In my fifth year of teaching, Max was in my class. He wore a hat. In fact, Max was known as “The Hat Kid.” He was inseparable from his leather 10-gallon, pheasant-feathered, cowboy hat. He was legendary: a pint-sized Pecos Bill right down to his Levi’s jacket and pointy cowboy boots; a diminutive lad who always had his nose in a science fantasy novel. And he always, insistently, obstinately, intrenchedly wore his hat.

His stubborn individualism was the source of amusement from teachers and derision from students — this pirate, this obstinate rebel, this Cat in the Hat! 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 him to remove it, the hat would reappear on his head within minutes. By October, I was fed up with polite reminders about removing the hat to avoid a power struggle. 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 his hat. He daily articulated the insidiousness of tradition, manners, fashion versus individual rights, etc. I invoked terms like “appropriateness,” “decency,” “clothing suitable to the occasion.”

My tactically inspired conversation about learning to pick one’s 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 principal, detente prevailed. Max could wear the hat in the building, but not during class. Win-win.

Max, however, was not done teaching me a lesson.

At the parent conference, Max’s 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 architectural drawings, and then explains why certain features look askew. He’s usually right. And I’m always amazed at what happens when we walk together through our neighborhood. He’s on a first name basis with everyone: the grocer, the laundry man, mail carriers, deli clerks. He’s fascinated by other people and their work. When the power or telephone people are working in a manhole, he stops to ask what they’re doing. Everyone knows Max because of his genuine interest in other people.”

So, the kid in the hat, in a style beyond his years, honored and connected with the other lives in his city community. He knew the neighborhood, and the neighborhood knew him. While he may not have shared my sense of “choosing his battles,” I had to admire his determination and powers of rational argument. In the present these qualities made his character appear stubborn; they would become tenacity, self-confidence.

If we listen closely, our children or our students are telling us not only who they are, but who we are. They bring us face to face with our former roles and elucidate some of the discontinuities of our own human development. We teachers and parents need this. And just when you think you understand the meaning of the costume, the child actor changes and becomes someone else, a whole new character.

Which leads me to admit there was something familiar about Max’s sartorial flare. 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 purple butterfly shirt. “Are you sure you’ll actually wear these?” was her only hint of reprobation, disguised as pragmatism. “I will,” I said. I did. I also had a hat: a broad brimmed, green fedora. I was quite groovy because I always, insistently, obstinately, intrenchedly wore my hat. Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had parents and teachers who knew that I was a work in progress. Still am.

I do not know Max’s present costume — Cowboy? Architect? Pilot? Did he run away and join the circus? — but by December of that year he had switched to a discreet Air Force beret. I kind of missed the cowboy hat. Because it was my hat, too.

Todd R. Nelson is a retired educator and writer. He lives in Penobscot.