Sunday, April 3, 2011

Happiness is a New T-Shirt

If anyone asked to see what I've collected most prolifically, I wouldn't show them quilts. I'd show them T-shirts. There's something wonderful about a really good T-shirt. It's a simple pleasure, a method of self-expression, and a relatively harmless way to satisfy materialistic impulses. Every T-shirt has a story.

Last week, I received a T-shirt ordered online from the Rhode Island School of Design book store. RISD (pronounced RIZ-dee) is a fine arts and design college located in Providence, Rhode Island. It was founded in 1877 and is one of the most highly regarded schools of its kind, even though there's actually nothing quite like it. I attended RISD from 1984 to 1986 in my first two years of college. My grandmother on my father's side also went there.

Opening the package and seeing the shirt brought back a lot of memories. I had another RISD T-shirt at one time, and there's a story about that shirt.

During my senior year in high school at the Peddie School in New Jersey, I'd been struggling with the decision about where to go to college. The situation was complicated by the sudden departure of the school college counselor, who had also been my swimming coach and advisor. I wasn't a particularly good student, and had been advised to apply to B-list liberal arts colleges with mediocre swimming programs. Frankly, I wasn't too thrilled with the idea, and was dragging my feet with college applications.

Everything changed one day when half the boys in my dormitory, including me, were suspended from school for what I'll call general mischief and mayhem. At the time, I'd started to become interested in photography. It was the only class I'd ever gotten an "A" in, but since it was just an elective I had the idea that photography didn't really matter and wasn't something that could be a career.

During my week-long suspension, I had a heart-to-heart conversation with my mother. Lamenting about how the things I loved - swimming and photography - didn't matter, she offered me a new idea. There were schools where I could study photography and it could be a career. I had no idea there was such a thing as an art school where I could study photography and make a career out of it. During the conversation, Mom told me about RISD.

That day, we decided to cancel a scheduled visit to Ohio, where I'd planned to go visit two colleges. The following week, I returned to Peddie and informed the new college counselor that I wanted to apply to RISD. He wasn't very encouraging. After lecturing me about how difficult it was to get in to RISD, he said I could apply if I wanted, but I shouldn't expect to get in. I contacted RISD, received the application materials, and scheduled a visit.

It was a wet, rainy day when Mom and I drove from New Jersey to Providence for the campus tour and interview. RISD did group tours, and several other prospective students were scheduled to be part of the tour group that day. I had come from the farthest distance, and as it turned out, I was the only applicant who showed up for the tour. That worked to my advantage, I thought, especially when applying for early admission.

Of course, Mom and I were very impressed with RISD. On our way out of town, we stopped by the RISD book store and she bought me a RISD T-shirt. The only one I could find in my size was purple with a white logo.

Back at Peddie, the new college counselor continued to urge me to apply to those B-list liberal arts colleges. He felt strongly that it was my only chance to get in to a college given my academic record. But RISD was the only school I applied to. I wore my RISD T-shirt for good luck, and a couple months later I received my acceptance letter. For the rest of the year, I wore my RISD T-shirt almost daily. I was proud to be going there, and a little defiant toward the college counselor who told me I wouldn't get in.

I don't know what happened to the original purple RISD T-shirt. It may be in a box in the attic, and if I still have it I'm sure it doesn't fit anymore. The recent purchase of a quilt from Rhode Island got me thinking about RISD again, so I went to their web site and ordered a new shirt. It's amazing how a simple T-shirt could bring back all these memories. Happiness is a new T-shirt.


  1. Great story...and really good school (I'm from just outside Boston and had several friends who went there!

  2. If I'd only had a little more wisdom, I would've stayed for the full four years. It is a great school!

  3. Love your story. I hope to see you in that T-shirt in Sisters this year!