This T-Shirt Will Make You Feel Good About the World

For the past few years, students in the United States have adopted October as anti-bullying month. One of the hallmark parts of this kindness campaign occurs on October 23rd, which is sometimes called “Unity Day.” In an effort to promote empathy, schoolchildren around the country wear orange-colored shirts, signaling their commitment to reducing if not eliminating bullying in their communities.

If you’re a student at the University of Tennessee, though, wearing orange has little to do with bullying — usually. The school’s official color is “Tennessee Orange,” made up of roughly two parts red for one part green. Orange t-shirts at Tennessee Volunteers football games aren’t typically worn in an effort to prevent bullying; people wear them to show their school spirit. 

But in one case, both reasons were true — all because of a fourth grader a few states away, who happened to be a die-hard Tennessee fan.

In August or September of 2019, a Florida school decided to usher in the new year with a “College Colors Day.” Students were invited to wear shirts in support of their favorite colleges, and as you’d expect, most of the kids wore Florida, Florida State, Miami, or other shirts from the immediate area. But one 4th grader, whose name hasn’t been revealed, was upset — he was a Tennesse fan, and even with a week’s notice, getting a Tennessee t-shirt wasn’t likely. His teacher made a suggestion: just wear an orange shirt.

The kid liked the idea but went one step further. As seen below, he drew himself a U of T logo on a piece of paper and pinned it to that orange tee.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t have a happy ending — at least not right away. Despite society’s collective efforts to turn orange into a beacon of anti-bullying, the boy in question got picked on for his efforts. As his teacher posted on Facebook, “after lunch, he came back to my room, put his head on his desk and was crying. Some girls at the lunch table next to his (who didn’t even participate in college colors day) had made fun of his sign that he had attached to his shirt. He was DEVASTATED.” 

In most cases, the story would end there: an upset kid, a frustrated teacher, and maybe a parent-teacher conference with the parents of the girls. But in this case, the teacher wasn’t just posting to vent. She was trying to use the social network to get the attention of Tennessee fans around the country in hopes that they could help her student feel better about his efforts. And her attempt worked. The post caught the attention of many others — and ultimately, of officials at the University of Tennessee. Per CNN, the school sent the kid a care package including a jersey and some UT hats. And there was more: the school also decided to turn the boy’s design into an official school shirt, seen below.

The shirts were priced at $14.99, with the proceeds (after the $7.50/unit production costs) donated to Stomp Out Bullying. They were immediately popular, too, crashing the school’s online store just after it was announced. Within a week, the school received more than 16,000 pre-orders for the shirt, raising more than $100,000 for anti-bullying efforts.

By all reports, the kid who first came up with the design was delighted. But there was more. If he decides to ultimately attend the University of Tennessee and has the grades to earn admission, he’ll automatically get in — and he’ll go for free. The school awarded him an honorary admission to the Class of 2032 and, per the school’s website, “a four-year scholarship covering his tuition and fees beginning fall 2028 should he decide to attend UT and meet admission requirements.” 

Bonus fact: The University of Tennessee gets its nickname (“Volunteers”) from the state’s nickname, “The Volunteer State.” There’s some debate as to where that latter nickname comes from, but most likely, it’s a reference to the Mexican-American War. When the U.S. went to war, it had a standing army of only about 8,000 men, so President James K. Polk asked each state to supply 2,600 volunteers to augment the existing military. According to Appalachian Magazine, “within a week’s time, more than 30,000 Tennesseans responded to the call to arms.” As a result, roughly a third of the American forces were from the state; only a total of approximately 75,000 men fought for the United State during the 21-month skirmish.

From the ArchivesThere’s No Such Thing as a Free T-Shirt: The title is a lie — free t-shirts are pretty common — but this one came with an odd price.