I’m at SPAC, working out in the weight room with the glass doors and weight machines. I’m sitting at a machine (the bicep one to be precise, because quite frankly I would love to have bigger biceps) when I notice that across the room, a man in his mid-40s is at the abdominal machine wearing a Michigan shirt. I know it’s a Michigan shirt because it’s bright yellow (or maize I guess, to be accurate) with four, large blue letters printed across the front: HAIL.
I wonder why he’s wearing a Michigan shirt at a Northwestern University gym and now that I’m focused on the idea of purple subversion, I look around searching for more and I immediately spot it. There’s a dude in a Purdue shirt using free weights. There’s a guy in a Duke shirt. I see a younger guy in a Washington shirt, probably a grad student. I see three girls, who all appear to be Northwestern-aged. One is in Illinois gear, another in Michigan and a third with UCLA shorts. And I see this all in the span of maybe 10 minutes. Shocking, right? Maybe even scandalous.
On preliminary thought, I conclude that wearing a purple Northwestern T-shirt is like making a pro-Northwestern-woo-I-love-my-school-statement. Half the time that I go to SPAC, I wear purple. The other half the time, I wear my high school T-shirts. I consider my high school shirts (and any other not-Northwestern T-shirt that doesn’t advertise another university) to be neutral—they’re just T-shirts. But wearing a Michigan, Illinois or Madison shirt, now that’s walking into hostile territory. It’s like a hobbit trying to walk through Mordor or a theater student in Tech. I imagine that it’s done as a deliberate act of sabotage.
The Michigan guy is leaving. I pull out my earbuds and make the snap decision to approach him. “Did you go to Michigan?” I ask.
He immediately breaks into a huge grin. “I did! Why do you ask?”
I explain that I was just curious as to why he was wearing a Michigan shirt at a Northwestern gym. “I went to Michigan,” he says as a simple explanation. “If I wore an NU shirt, then people will think I went to Northwestern.” He says that if he could, he would commute to Ann Arbor to work out. But that’s not realistic. He does make the commute for Michigan football, just not to work out. The dude is a diehard Michigan fan and has been since he studied there over 20 years ago. “But I love Northwestern too,” he says. “I’ve lived in Evanston for years now.”
I thank the guy for his time. I can’t hold school spirit against him, I guess; he loves his alma mater. But still, it was a deliberate choice to wear Michigan to SPAC—he wants people to know that he went to Michigan.
I move onto my next target, a girl who looks to be an undergrad, sporting Illinois gear. Her answer is simple. “Yeah,” she says, “I transferred from U of I.”
“Makes sense,” I say. But I’m really thinking, no, darn it! You’re a Northwestern student now. But it is at this point that I look down at my Highland Park High School T-shirt and my stomach sinks a little. I’m a Northwestern student now too, not a high schooler. But it’s fun to rep my high school. So does that make me a hypocrite? I think it might. In fact, I commit far greater sins, and I do them deliberately.
Just the other day, I was working on a problem set with one of my friends in PMA. I waltzed into their house, sat down on a couch in their main room and we started working. And what was I wearing? My big gray sweatshirt with gold and blue letters: AEPi. I might as well have been screaming it. And worse, I remember throwing on the sweatshirt before leaving my room. “I’m going to PMA,” I thought, “might as well wear my letters!”
Before leaving SPAC, I approach a third and final person. He’s older, early 60s maybe, wearing a Duke shirt. I ask if he went to Duke. “No,” he says, “my wife did.” I ask about his motivations for wearing a Duke shirt when at a Northwestern gym. He thinks for a second. “It’s just a way I show my love for my wife,” he says. And if that’s not a good enough reason to wear a T-shirt, then I’ve got nothing.
Like with the Duke shirt, people can choose the T-shirts they wear for any number of surprising reasons that we just don’t know at first glance. And wrapped into that unknown, though the cliché says not to judge a book by its cover, is the expression of personal identity through clothing. So at the end of the day then, can I really fault the SPAC-goers who sport their Michigan, Illinois or even familial pride? I’m thinking that I should not. But I’m a Northwestern student who likes the sound of jangling keys at kickoff. So will I fault them anyway? Probably.