Sometimes all it takes is a pair of shoes to shift everything.
In fifth grade, my supremely cool step-mom took me to see Clueless and then proceeded to whirlwind me around Westside Pavilion on a shopping spree to mimic the far out fashion of the film. We’re talking plaid skirts and knee high socks, patent leather Mary Janes and corduroy jumpers, clear glitter sandals and collared baby-tees with words like “What-Ever!” and “As If!” scrawled on the front. I showed up to fifth grade at Palisades Elementary ready to sweep the Student Council and rule the playground at lunch. (I lost to a boy and had a terrible falling out with my friends halfway through the year. The election was RIGGED and girls are merciless.)
But I had this one pair of electric blue high-heeled jellies that I wore to the point of my parents speaking up and buying me some Adidas. (“Those are bad for your high arches!”) I loved those shoes, because even at ten years old I was very aware that wherever I went they were a show stopper, a conversation starter, and they gave me some identity beyond “sensitive bossy fifth grader who subconsciously knows she is headed for a fall.” They made me feel cool and seen. Let’s be real – nothing feels quite as important as being cool when you’re young. And feeling seen, I think, at least by a few, even when we already see ourselves, is always important.
My older brother was for sure cool, and he hung out with all the other cool people. Especially the girls. If I thought I had fresh outfits, these chicks were next level. They were seventh and eighth graders, so that meant they did things like pretend they smoked cigarettes and made out with boys. One in particular always commented on my blue-jelled shoes and made me feel like a million bucks. We’d get to talking about music (Alanis Morissette, No Doubt) and TV (90210) and the other pop culture references that unite us all, and she treated me like a person. Not like a little sister or a nuisance or a younger, dumber whatever kid – like a person with shit to say. I will never forget this, and I have my shoes to thank. It was the first time I was aware that something you wore could work like art – evoke a connection, bring people together, make you feel less small.
When I first started teaching, it was unbelievably difficult, and not because I wasn’t good at it – I was. I still am. (Teaching is difficult for anyone anywhere, and until you have done it, you’re not allowed to say, “how hard can it be, hanging out with kids?” and “But summers off!” Ha! Why I oughta…) Connecting with my students always came naturally, and I’m a nerd for English so mastery of the content was no big. But knowing this on a higher level did not soothe the fact that I felt like a failure on a lower level. I was not suave about making mistakes – I was hard on myself and rigid, took it all personally. (This, I worked on, and I’m better!) If the kids seemed bored or tired, I thought it was because I was boring and tiring. Never mind the fact that school just sometimes sucks, no matter how much you love your teachers.
One student in particular plagued me. She was aloof, highly intelligent, sensitive, creative. Very moody. Often quiet. Best writer in the class, by far. One of the popular girls, but she didn’t want to be. She came from money and was extremely fashion-forward, always getting sent to the office for showing a little too much skin or wearing more makeup than was appropriate. She full stop would not make a connection with me, and I lost sleep over it. Every other girl in the class wouldn’t leave me alone, pestered me at recess and lunch and wrote me little love notes that I pinned to my bulletin board. Not this one. She didn’t even laugh at my awesome jokes. She had already read The Giver, and so while the rest of the class gasped and cringed when we discovered what Release meant and read what Jonas’ father did to the twin baby, she sat there picking her nails.
I almost started to get angry, but really I knew, there’s something going on there. Something was hurting her inside. Her parents didn’t respond to my emails. Admin was vague about her issues. She didn’t have any learning disabilities or diagnosed behavioral problems. She got straight A’s and was quiet, therefore left alone. I knew her parents were divorced. I had the sense she was a bit of a latchkey kid, raised by nannies and taught very young to fix herself snacks after school. She was growing up fast. She’d get into a rough crowd in high school and get eaten alive, or else devour others. Sensitive girls with pains in their hearts? And beautiful? Wrapped in bows for mean boys.
Much like Annette Bening in American Beauty chanting, “I will sell this house today!”, striking a connection with this student became my mantra. And I knew my way in. Shoes.
There was a dress code for teachers, but I broke it. No platforms, no sandals, lest you trip and break your ankle and then we have to spend money on hiring a sub. I took the risk. You can take it out of my paycheck, suckers! Nineties fashion had made a comeback, and this student never ceased to piece together unbelievably adorable and creative outfits. Crushed velvet tops and dark lipsticks and hair dye. Sneakers with skirts. Fake diamond collars. Sometimes a straight cowgirl theme or goth princess from the future. Other girls tried to mimic her with scant success. My outfits were always relatively appealing, but I was also teaching middle school, so I couldn’t really bring it with my clothes. Had to cover up, don’t you know, had to look professional. (And as I mentioned, she was sent to the office on the reg for breaking dress code, but what could we really do? Straight A’s and calm. Let her be.)
I had these ridiculous patent leather super high platforms that were completely nonsensical for teaching (or anything) and a total violation of the rules. They stayed in the back of my closet. My boss was a stickler for teachers never looking sexy (understandable) or wearing the wrong shoes. Well, this was a a matter of humanity. They were fresh. Dope. Hip. #TrendyAF. #CoolTeachers. Bring it. It sounds unbelievably shallow and stupid, but I knew my little aloof writer would notice. It was only November, and sometimes it takes students until about February to really warm up, but damn it, this was happening now. I would law of attract it, so help me. And I did.
She walked into my class and gave me a once-over, as girls often do. “Whoa, those are cool shoes,” she said, avoiding eye contact. She was used to seeing my brown boots, worn down on the heel. Here I was, merry little prankster, changing the game. People feel comforted by mirroring, so in my most cavalier, nonchalant, middle school cool girl way I said, “oh, thanks. Have a seat, get out your homework.”
“Where’d you get them?”
“Shopbop. Nineties back, in a big way. Like Clueless.”
“I love that movie. You know Shopbop?”
Something flicked in her eyes, swear. Something ignited. My guess is she finally saw, Ms. Ingraham is a person separate from teacher. She likes fashion. She probably doesn’t live at the school. She probably knows some shit beyond junior high literature. (This is huge, by the way, for students to grasp.) All from a pair of silly little shoes. There was also some deeper nuanced learning going on for both of us and for women everywhere: you can be into fashion, into beauty, into looks, and also be into books, into profound connection, into something deep and lasting. Smart girls take selfies, too, damn it, and teachers have hot sex.
I had her come in to work on her writing with me, and she started to talk. First, about fashion. (“My mom buys me whatever I want, but you know, I have enough shoes at this point. I think I’d rather have…”) Then, a little pop culture. (She loved Pretty Little Liars, Rhianna and some YouTube star I had never heard of.) Then, friends. (“I feel like they know don’t know me.”Ah, join the club, girl.) She had a depth to her, and a sadness, and she reminded me of me in that sense, and dear god I wish I had had someone to talk to when I was twelve. Her mother was hard on her about her looks and weight. Already on a diet of no sugar and lower carbs. She loved books and had read The Outsiders, The Golden Compass, Catcher in the Rye (“Holden is judging others to avoid getting close”) and every single John Green book and popular YA series. (“The Hunger Games is overrated. I think they should teach Harry Potter in schools. [I agree.]) She loved animals and children. (“My little brother is six, and he is my life.”) She felt lonely and alone, and there was more to her story, something dark and tragic that I won’t go into, and I knew high school would be rough for her and she’d get into drugs and sex, but I also knew she’d come out on the other side with a large and ferocious story to tell. She was an over-comer, undeniably, to her bones.
She became my favorite student and perhaps had more of an impact on me than I had on her. I learned once more how quickly I might judge someone or take it personally that they behave in a detached manner. What is wrong with me, that we aren’t connecting? Why don’t they love me?! That we can judge so harshly on appearances. (How sad can a pretty girl really be? Well, very.) But there is always something brewing below, and if we can show, I see you, and I accept you, that brew might bubble up, and spill.
It was worth getting called into my boss’ office and lectured on my fashion choices. It was good for me to prove to myself once more that it is in making mistakes and being imperfect where the real shifts occur. And that it is simple, and unexpected. Shoes. And listening. Sometimes that is all it takes. No pronouncements. No grand gestures or declarations. Just a little rule-bending, a nodding head and knowing eyes, a hundred bucks dropped on impractical footwear.