I wear a lot of hats, literally. Each day after showering and brushing my teeth, I grab a hat from my closet and design the day’s outfit around what I place upon my head. My hats are more than accessories. They have become my identity.
I grew up in a family that loved me, a family that cared about me, and a family that helped me see the world. The world was my neighborhood. The world was my backyard. I was a navy brat. My father enlisted in the military when I was three years old and as a result, I had the opportunity to live in exotic locations from Hawaii to Cuba as well as industrial inner cities from Flint to Florida. I was the consummate new kid. I was great at making acquaintances, but never learned the art of making friends. I didn’t have to. With my average tenure in any house, less than three years, the odds were that as I was unpacking another child in my neighborhood was packing. Kids my age, living in my neighborhoods, were like ships passing me in the night.
Early in my childhood, I had an active imagination. I have vivid memories of wrapping a pink beach towel over my shoulders, clothes pinning it to my t-shirt, and jumping off of monkey bars pretending I was Superman. I remember owning a faux leather vest that I would wear over my bare chest while dragging a rope behind me searching for lost treasure at the local park as Indiana Jones. As a kid, I was amazing at pretending to be someone else. It was a gift that I have carried with me into my forties.
In third grade, I left my movie character identities behind and began to transform into “Dave”. My father’s name is David as well. I am not a junior. We possess different middle names. He is Perry. I am Matthew. My parents decided early on to call me by my middle name to ease the confusion around the house. If my mom needed me to come downstairs, instead of calling for “David” and having both me and my dad appear, calling for “Matthew” would eliminate the confusion and ensure that the right person would arrive. It also prohibited me from using the excuse when being beckoned, “I thought you wanted dad.”. For the first eight years of my life, everyone knew me as Matthew. My immediate family, my extended family, my classmates, and my teachers all called me by the name my parents called me. Not my first name. Not the name I have colleagues call me today, but the name they still refer to me as, “Matthew”.
In my mind, “David” was a grown-up name. It was the name adults used to get my dad’s attention. It was the name my dad used when introducing himself to others. At eight years old, I decided it was the name I wanted to be called as well. I was getting older and I wanted others to acknowledge it.
Mrs. E. Foster, not to be confused with the strict fourth grade teacher, Mrs. B. Foster, was the first teacher to ever call me Dave. During that year, Mrs. E. Foster taught me long division, explained why we have leap years, and helped change my identity. For the first six months of that school year, I hung on every word she said. I did everything in my power to impress her. She was a veteran teacher who reminded each of us in her class that she had been teaching longer than most of our parents had been alive and I worshipped her. My life was consumed with making this woman, the first to acknowledge that I was growing up, proud. In April of that year, Mrs. E. Foster scheduled a conference with my parents that allowed me to grow up even more while also placing me in an environment where I was destined to always be the youngest around.
My parents returned from the conference that April evening and found me outside swinging at the neighborhood park. They called me inside by yelling “Matthew”, and said we needed to talk. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t concerned. Somehow, I knew the conference my parents had with Mrs. E. Foster was not filled with discussions of disappointment, but instead promise. My mom explained that in their meeting Mrs. E. Foster had been filled with praise for a student known as “Dave”. A student that at first my parents failed to recognize was me. As the conversation unfolded and as my parents recognized I was the child being referenced, they heard statements like, “He is smart.”, “It seems like things just come easy to Dave.” and, “I think he should skip fourth grade and go directly to fifth grade next year.” The pride I saw evidenced on my parents’ faces that evening is something I have been chasing ever since. Ultimately, they turned to me and asked what I thought. With a resounding “Yes” I committed to being the youngest fifth grader the following year, joining my sister who is a year older in her class, and skipping a year of school.
I entered fifth grade full of confidence. Mrs. E. Foster had made it clear that I would be successful so I knew I would. She made me believe that “Things just come easy to Dave” so I believed they would.
The truth is things didn’t come easy for me. At nine years old I was given the chance to learn the violin during a weekly class for “gifted” students. I didn’t know that all the other kids were practicing at home six days a week to refine their skills, but I knew that once a week when I showed up to play, their bows were moving up across the strings while mine were moving down. They were developing callouses on their fingers while my fingers were still soft as butter.
In sixth grade I was able to finally play on a school athletic team. Weighing seventy-five pounds I signed up to play football. I threw up after every practice. I got knocked down every time I stood up on the field. I attempted to play defense, offense, and special teams. Changing positions every week in an attempt to blend in and hope that none of the coaches actually caught on to how much I was struggling. I got into one game, for one minute, and made one tackle. My parents were at the game. My dad had the video camera zoomed in on me. As I made the tackle (in reality, I got run over and the opposing player simply tripped over me), my dad could be heard yelling, “I think he made the tackle. He did it. I think he did it.” My dad showed that video clip to many of his adult friends. He wasn’t embarrassed that I made one tackle. In his mind, I was a football player.
As I entered high school, I attempted to play another musical instrument, the trombone this time, believing my past exposure to the violin would somehow prepare me. It didn’t. I faked my way through most band classes and tried to blend in at concerts. My parents were none the wiser and bragged about me to their friends, including the musical director at the church we were attending. Mrs. Bailey, the musical director was a wonderful woman who believed her job was not to put on a show each week, but to engage the congregation. In November of my freshman year, Mrs. Bailey cornered me one week after service, presented me with a sheet of paper and explained that she had heard from my parents that I was a trombone player. She went on to state that she had spent the last two weeks creating the score for her favorite hymn to be played by me on my trombone during the Christmas service if I was up for it. Instead of expressing my fear and inability to actually play, I graciously took the music and agreed to the request. I should have practiced every night, but “Things always come easy for Dave”. During the Christmas service I stood on stage, displaying pride and confidence, and created my own original piece of music to a hymn nobody had ever heard before.
The charade of make believe continued throughout my time in school. I was always the secret admirer to my crush for fear that she would not return the admiration and reject me. I left love notes in lockers and on doorsteps, but never delivered in person. I finished in last place as a mile runner in track but kept a photograph taken by a teammate’s mother showing me all alone on the final turn of the track, on display on my home refrigerator because it made me look like I was all alone in first place, not dead last. I worked multiple jobs as a paper boy, as a crew trainer at McDonalds, and even a store associate in the woman’s fashion department of K-Mart, so that I could always have the excuse of being too busy to party, to make friends, or even sit still alone in my room at home.
Twenty-five years ago, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. It was what I was supposed to do, because nobody else had ever done it.
Twenty years ago I graduated with a master’s degree because I had to prove to those I worked with that I had the answers. All of the answers.
Eighteen years ago I went to law school where I learned it’s not about who I am. It’s about the debate I can create.
Twelve years ago I earned the title Doctor. It is now used before my name, Dr. Dave, by those who know me professionally, because nobody really knows me personally.
In my parent’s home today, there is a large display filled with family pictures depicting my life as a child. The pictures depicting me in my first eight years show me with a head of bright blonde hair. I was a young Zack Morris. Beginning in early middle school, more and more pictures show me wearing a ball cap, covering my disheveled head. Hats began as a costume accessory, but soon morphed into an attempt to cover an ever-increasing perceived flaw.
The cowlick I had on the back of my head was not new in middle school. I just became more aware of it. I attempted to correct it with gel, hair spray, and countless other products, to no avail. I grew my hair down to my shoulders hoping the added mass would tame the beast upon my head. The only verified solution was a hat. Any hat.
In college I wore a cowboy hat to an R and B concert. I knew the group I was going to see, All for One, was achieving fame in large part because of their latest cover song, originally recorded by John Michael Montgomery, a country artist. I wore my hat to show my support for what I perceived to be the song’s real roots- I Swear.
I wore a Fubu hat, backwards, every day for six months. I was told it was a brand created for those in the cities, those who were forgotten, and those who needed a way out. Fubu was a brand I thought was made for me, until I was confronted at a party for not representing the brand. Apparently, being a skinny white kid who listened to country music was not quite what Fubu stood for according to some.
I wore a Detroit Pistons hat to show my loyalty to my favorite team.
I wore a Navy hat to pay homage to my dad.
I wore a hat because I thought others would like it.
I wore a hat everywhere.
In my early thirties, my thick head of hair began to thin. To cover up my growing bald spot, I wore a hat. Wearing hats clogged my pores and caused more hair to disappear. I became more intentional about always wearing a hat.
In my mid-thirties I was invited to present at a conference. I wore a hat. After the conference I was told by the producers that my look was too unprofessional. They did not appreciate me wearing a hat. I did not fit in.
Today I am completely bald. Today I wear hats everywhere. I speak for a living. I wear a hat to every event. I am wearing a hat right now.
I have worn many hats in my life. My hats cover my flaws. My hats display my passions. My hats help me hide. My hats are what I am known for.
Today, I am working hard to learn who I am under my hat. I am working to recognize the man below the brim. I don’t quite know who he is, but I am starting by learning who I am not.
I am not my name.
I am not my label.
I am not who you think I am.
I am not my flaws.
I am not my strengths.
I am not my facades.
The hats of a man may be an outward expression of who he is, but who he is has origins beyond his hats. Things have not always come easy to me. I have not always been smart, wise, funny, or reflective. I have not always been a failure, a fraud, a fake, or a liar. Your perceptions are not my reality, but neither are my perceptions.
I am me. I am a man learning and growing and evolving. I am not the boy I was. I am not the man I will be. As I tip my hat, I say thank you for allowing me to become a different version of me than anyone has ever known.
-David Matthew Schmittou