The yellow hoodie

Posted: April 08, 2012

As Bill Cosby once put it, I started out as a child. I recall it mainly as a blur of awkward moments, though a few still stand out, especially from the late summer of 1980.

That inexplicably traumatic season began when my parents started trying to find a school where I could attend first grade without, to use the psychiatric term, freaking out. It ended shortly after my mother, realizing I had finally become reasonably comfortable at the school where I ended up, asked gently whether I might be ready to stop wearing my hoodie.

Well, my mother would have said "sweatshirt." But it was unquestionably the same type of garment that is now known - rather widely and infamously of late - as a hoodie. It was yellow, composed of thick cotton, equipped with a full-length zipper, and topped with the familiar hood and knotted drawstrings.

Mind you, this was in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, where the forecast in September (and about eight other months) tends to call for hot sun, punctuated by hot wind. It most certainly does not call for a sweatshirt.

But it seems that, lacking friendship, comfort, or protection in the (I thought) harsh environment of first grade, I had settled for a poor and nonsensical substitute: my yellow hooded sweatshirt.

I arrived for school with it on and zipped in the morning, and it stayed that way until I was picked up in the afternoon, at which point it was probably at least 85 degrees and might have been 95. It was at least hot enough that my mom seemed to find my circumstance not only distressing but also a little funny when she suggested it might be time for me to part with my security blanket with sleeves.

The point here is not that I was a wimpy kid. It's that I was a wimpy kid whose garment of choice was a hoodie.

And I know I wasn't the only thoroughly unintimidating person who ever wore one. Consider Adam Sandler's affecting and hilarious doo wop-style tribute to his childhood hoodie, "Red Hooded Sweatshirt." (Sample lyric: "I don't care if the weather's no good. / I say, 'See you later, rain,' as I pull up my hood.")

I hadn't thought about my yellow hooded sweatshirt for a long time. Then, in the wake of the shooting in Florida of a hoodie-clad black teenager, Trayvon Martin, people were talking about hoodies, marching in hoodies, and getting thrown out of the House of Representatives for wearing a hoodie. I even heard Geraldo Rivera and others suggest there was something inherently menacing or dangerous about a hoodie. And then I thought of Adam Sandler and my 6-year-old self, and I laughed and laughed.

Many of the facts of Martin's killing remain obscure. But Americans' prejudices tend to be about people, not clothes. The notion that they can be eliminated with a wardrobe change should be shed like a sweatshirt on a summer day in Southern California.

Josh Gohlke is The Inquirer's commentary editor. Contact him at jgohlke@phillynews.com or follow @JoshGohlke on Twitter.

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