Ties That Bind

In an old episode of The Simpsons, Bart, Lisa, and Homer race home from church, plop down at the front door, and tear off their formal clothes. It’s a raw, irreverent celebration of freedom.

That’s me at the beginning of every summer, after making it through another year at a school with a dress code. For guys, the code means ties. And for a guy from Western New York — northernmost Appalachia — that means feeling like a sellout, pretty much every day. As the months go by, my neck and back muscles petrify. I am a chiropractor’s dream.


In late June, still decompressing, I sat at a sidewalk café in northwestern Bosnia, savoring the morning sun, the strong coffee, and the chance to hang out with deeply humane, brutally frank Bosnian men. “What do you think,” I asked, “of guys in ties?” They laughed derisively, puffing their chests. I’m a bigshot. A businessman, a politician. Someone poisoned by arrogance, someone defined by his allegiance to the ruling class.

I made the best argument I could for the code: that it seems to help young men take themselves seriously, to come to our small, roundtable seminars ready, every day, to engage with the material and their peers. My friends shook their heads. To them, it’s just obvious that a person should lean into a conversation with the eyes, ears, heart, and mind. Who needs a tie to remind himself of that?


Back at school this week, my male colleagues, male students, and I strapped on our ties for the beginning of a new year. As I fantasized about a life without the code, a fourteen-year-old kid popped into my classroom, between periods. He’s one of the new students in my dorm. It’s his second day of class, and he’s holding a tie. In two years, he’ll probably tower over me, but for now, he looks up and says, “Mr. Simpson? Can you show me how to tie this?”

I’ve never had to do this before. A sneering thought intrudes — sure, kid, here’s your initiation. Welcome to the ruling class. But the thought doesn’t take hold. The kid isn’t pretentious at all. He’s just at my door, on his own, looking for a little guidance, a little confidence. Stirring images of my father, teaching me about ties, suddenly begin to surface. They awaken me to the demands — the beauty — of the moment.

So I go to him. With our fathers hundreds of miles away, we stand, side by side, practicing, mirroring, doing the best we can. Cross, up, over, through….We come up short. We laugh. We try again, and again, until we finally get it. Then I send him on his way. It feels good. It feels right.

Photograph by the author, who will not be quitting his day job to take up fashion photography.

About Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, philosophy, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. He is the author of *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940* (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and nonfiction essays about Bosnia for the Canadian literary magazine *Numero Cinq*. Born in 1975 in Olean, NY, he earned the Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, where he specialized in American religious history. He writes, teaches, and lectures about religion in America, popular culture, Mormonism, and Bosnia. He lives in Exeter with his partner, Alexis Simpson, and their two children.
This entry was posted in Autobiography / Memoir, Bosnia, class, Photography, Raising Boys, Teaching, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ties That Bind

  1. Nice – you’re a good person. Thankfully I’ve never had to ‘dress up,’ for school. I can remember when I first received my doctorate, my mother purchased two Harris Tweed jackets for me, complete with obligatory elbow patches. I never, ever, wore either of them (not even once). What a horrid son I have been! D

    • Tom Simpson says:

      Oh, that’s a great story, man…we should have a nonfiction game where all participants submit a short narrative that ends with “What a horrid son I have been!” 🙂

  2. OK … it’s your turn! D

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