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It’s Not a Hat – It Is a Stetson

I am a business professor who has been teaching college-level business courses at two all-male State Prisons in northern Ohio for the past five years. I felt compelled to write this story about an actual life-changing incident. An example of an old teacher getting schooled. This is a story about a hat well, a Stetson, to be more precise.

“The Stetson Catera is a high-quality Fur Felt Hat included in the Stetson Gun Club Collection. The Catera has a teardrop crown with a pinch, and it has a 3 1/4” brim, which slants down in the front and back. The hat has a full satin lining and a leather interior sweatband.” ~

I was experiencing frustration with one of my classes and taking it very personally. The class was quickly becoming dreary. A long parade of monosyllabic answers with little class participation. This class had zero connection. I was blaming myself for this failure. In previous courses, they contained ‘return’ students or students I had taught before. Which made connecting and building trust much more straightforward. This particular class was exclusively new students with no prior relationships to rely upon.

Last night, I woke from sleep, sprung upright in my bed, and experienced the famous ‘aha’ moment. I felt like a cartoon character with a lightbulb hovering over my head. The solution (as it often is) was very simple. The solution was The Solution or The Solution Newsletter, to be specific. Photocopies of our prison newsletter named The Solution, which contained one of my popular prison-themed stories. I would distribute them to the members of this troubling class. Once they read the story, I was convinced students would realize I had been around the block more than a few times, paid my dues, and was a person they could trust.

“This is going to work, Tom,” I mumbled as I unloaded the precious newsletter copies from my Jeep in the prison parking lot. “It has to work.” I changed my comfortable old driving moccasins for a stiff pair of black dress shoes. Followed by the nagging thought, “What if it doesn’t work, then what?” No time for this doubting. “Where did I put my darn hat?” The long trek across the windy prison yard required some head coverage, especially with my balding grey head. My usual headgear was a U.S. Army veteran baseball cap, which couldn’t be found. The only headcover I could find was my beat-up old Stetson. The ‘Gun Club’ issue Stetson was an aging remnant from my high school days in Austin, Texas. As a young (14-year-old) buckeye transferred from Ohio, I felt the need to fit in. All the cowboys and ranch hands that attended my high school wore cowboy hats. So, several dozen mowed lawns later; I was the proud owner of this same Stetson. I was running late for class, so I popped it into my head.

I trampled my way to the prison entrance carrying two extra-large, heavy, plastic see-through containers. Each is full of books and papers. I began the tedious personal property search and questioning process when my inner voice, I.V., or IVY as I have named him, mumbled sarcastically in my mind, “Isn’t it a little late for second thoughts?” As I went through the metal detector dragging my containers. Next, through an x-ray machine. Finally, I was ready to move forward.

I had trekked halfway across the two hundred yards by two hundred yards prison yard when that pesky IVY started in for real “Don’t you see how arrogant and egotistical it will look for you to bring in your own story?” stated IVY rather snidely. I snapped back at IVY. “You know that isn’t my motivation!” But, what if IVY was right, and that is what my students think? No! Could my inspiration make things worse?

Suddenly I heard a live voice, a voice from outside of my head. “Hey, Doctor D.,” came from a melodious voice beside me, “Nice brim you are sporting today.” Still deep in an internal argument with IVY, I responded without thinking, “It’s not a hat. It is a Stetson!” Looking over my shoulder at the smiling face of Smitty (name changed for this story). Smitty was a force of nature. He never ceased smiling. He was well-known, also well-liked by everyone. “Whatever you call it, Doc, it’s a cool brim.” I answered him with a smile of my own “Sorry, Mr. Smith, I am running late for class. I can’t stop and talk with you today.” He smiled even broader (if that was possible). “Here, let me lighten your load, sir” he snatched one of the heavy containers from my hand. “It will speed you up.” I started walking briskly with Smitty, striding lithely by my side.

We approached the Education Building (EDU). I spied 25 tense-looking prisoners in faded blue denim loitering by the front door. They looked impatient, waiting for their tardy teacher (me) to unlock their classroom. As we merged into the larger group, I overheard several students, “Smitty” and “Wassup Smitty.” Smitty gave the group a full-fledged blast of what made his grin famous in the Yard. Everyone seemed to loosen up and relax. I heard an inmate named Johnson (one of the youngest of my students at age 19) pipe up from the rear of the crowd, “Mister Davison, what have you got on your head?” He then proceeded to answer his own question, “Is it an Indiana Jones hat?” I could hear a few soft chuckles from the crowd. “Gentlemen,” I began to respond when from my left side I heard Smitty chuckling, “Hey you guys, Doctor D is cool!” immediately followed by “He isn’t wearing a hat; he is wearing a Stetson!” I gave Smitty a quick appreciative grin. His opinion carried weight in the Yard.

Mr. Brown (an informal class leader) asked me with a big smile, “What’s a Stetson? Is that some kinda cowboy hat, Doctor D?” As I began unlocking the series of security doors to the education building IVY spoke in my head, “They are waiting to see how you handle being teased? Are you going to be defensive about it? Or seize this opening, you big six feet, four-inch dummy?” Darn it, I thought to myself, that IVY is right again. I began speaking in a loud and cheerful voice, “Mr. Brown calling a Stetson a hat is like calling a Maserati a car.” My statement was followed by immediate grins and chuckles from the entire class.

Finally, I thought the proverbial dam had broken. I was peppered with questions from all sides: “What is so special about a Stetson?” and “How old is that thing, Doctor D?” Followed by “Does it come in different colors?” and my favorite “What is that thing made from a beaver?” A few minutes later, we were all secure in the classroom. The conversations were still going strong. Fortunately, with a bit of nudging, I smoothly transitioned from hats to business management topics. I learned more than I taught that day; as usual, I’m the one who got ‘schooled.’ I smiled to myself as I listened to the loud and busy noises of ‘learning’ occurring all around me.

That day was almost four years ago. I wear that old Stetson every single day I teach in the prisons to all my classes. My students say things such as, “We always know when you are in the Yard, Doctor Davison, Because you can see that thing on your head from a mile away!” Prisoners (who are not attending college) always point me out with statements such as “See that guy in the funny hat that’s Doctor D.” Inmates whom I’ve never met before will nod say “Good morning” to me, or the hat, I’m not sure which one? My old beat-up Stetson has become more than a head covering. It has become a symbol.

I do volunteer work at the prisons for Toastmasters and the Writer’s Clubs. Last month a prisoner I had never met before, a stranger to me named Mr. Jones, visited me. Smitty, the former President of the Toastmasters Club, was recently released back into the World. He stays in touch; we email back and forth frequently. Smitty’s newly elected replacement was the stranger who came for a visit. Mr. Jones wanted reassurance that he could depend on me for sponsorship support for the Toastmasters? He entered the room, stopped abruptly stared at Stetson. The Stetson was resting in its place of honor on top of the right corner of my desk. “Wow,” said Mr. Jones, “that’s the famous hat I have been hearing about.” IVY muttered, “Oh no, here we go again!” I stated firmly, “You must be Mr. Jones? Well, let’s get something straight upfront that is not a hat; it’s a Stetson!”

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in All Stories, Culture and Current Events, Happy Read, Humor, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Personal Narrative, True Story


    1. Thank you, Brenda, for your kind words. Stetson was the top-of-the-line when I lived in Austin Texas, and made a statement. You don’t see many true cowboy hats in northern Ohio. Most of my incarcerated students thought it was an Indiana Jones knock-off of some type.