School, Saddle Shoes & Shame

When I was in third grade, saddle shoes were all the rage. At least I thought they were – the way they contrasted so delightfully in and of themselves, the way they sharpened an outfit. I didn’t pay much attention to who exactly was wearing them, but I loved the way they looked and soon became obsessed with getting a pair.

At Buster Brown there was a pair of saddle shoes – for boys in fact – and I rejoiced as I slid them on my feet. Ahh, the glory of a pair of shoes! These shone in shiny black and white, beacons of pride and joy, like tickling piano keys as I walked. I marched around the store, admiring them in the shoe mirrors. They were bold, and at first my feet were unaccustomed to something so demanding of a second look. Could I pull them off? Of course! How could I not? I thought of those pretty little girls parading around in their pristine saddle shoes, topped by perfectly-white frilly socks. How they glided along on dainty footsteps, how they made it look so effortlessly elegant and easy, and how I wanted to do the same.

The first day I wore my saddle shoes I felt like I was floating into school. I was making my own black-and-white checker-tiled dance-floor, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers all rolled into one (before I even heard their names in the ‘Vogue’ rap).

Yet the whispers upon my entering class were not of awe or envy. I knew those whispers even then. These were whispers of confusion. These were the whispers of discomfort. These were the whispers of ridicule. I thought I heard someone say they were girl shoes.

Then, sudden and swift and irrevocable, the onslaught of shame. With reddened face and panicky disposition, I seethed in inner agony. I quickly took my seat and swung my feet under my chair, away from prying eyes. At heads-down time, I peeked under the desks to study the feet around me. Only girls were wearing saddle shoes.

I shrunk in embarrassment. I cringed at the monstrosities on my feet. I’d made a fatal misstep. I who never faltered, who never failed, now felt the hot flush of being the almost-object of ridicule. I felt myself teetering on the brink of becoming ostracized from the only people who seemed to matter. Yet I never let on that those whispers bothered me, or even made it to my ears. I never let on how badly they crushed my ego and destroyed the silly bit of joy I got in those shoes. I never let on that when they tried to break me, they had in fact succeeded.

I didn’t wear the saddle shoes much after that – just a few more times so as not to arouse the suspicion or ire of my frugal parents for not making use of new shoes. They went back into their box, worn only at home or on vacation or where I could be myself and not worry about being chided for it.

Everything I do today, every strange, questionable object I wear, is done in honor of that little boy who was robbed of such joy, held captive for the rest of his boyhood by a gang of innocently cruel children. They were taught by the world to dress like a boy or a girl, and there was never room for anything in-between. Another line between innocence and shame. Another demarcation of growing up. The way we erase our identities to fit in, to feel like we belong – I didn’t know then that it was the very way I would grow to hate myself. It would take years before I returned to my quirky style. Years of khakis and polos, and jeans and sneakers, and trying to be the boy everyone wanted me to be. Years in which I pushed my lovely saddle shoes into the dark recesses of my closet, and the life-loving fun that should comprise every childhood into the hidden recesses of my heart.

{This article appears in the September issue of ‘Community’ as published by the Pride Center of the Capital Region.}

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