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Mar. 17th, 2016

I’m still on the e-mailing list for my high school, from which I graduated 22 years ago this spring. It’s a combination of habit and lingering interest. I’m following the technical theatre program, which is about to get its own dedicated performance space for the first time in the school’s 39 year history. It has been sharing with the cafeteria for over a decade and with both the cafeteria and gymnasium for decades before that. And I’m following the science fair program, as a former award winning sciencefair-ian and sometimes judge. And I enjoy the news about some of the faculty, my favorite of whom now teaches Shakespeare night classes to adult. Typically I skim through the e-mails pretty quickly.

But I couldn’t get past the second paragraph of this one. They are apparently holding an auction with a 50s theme.

“Tickets will be on sale soon and this brings up that very important question -- What do I wear?? Dressing in character for the event is totally optional, of course, but if a poodle skirt is the first thing that comes to mind...don't be nervous. It's not the only 50s couture!

We found these do-it-yourself saddle shoes that are so easy to make.”

And that’s where I had to stop.

Because I have other associations with saddle shoes at that school.

Because I wore saddle shoes to school for about two years.

And they weren’t treated as something fun and exciting and a throwback to the past. They were treated as an object of ridicule. All my shoes were. Everything I said and did was. I was.

In seventh grade I still wore Mary Janes. And cardigan sweaters and plaid pleated skirts. I had been at school for about a week when a teacher called my mother with an array of social concerns. “Why can’t you get your daughter to dress more like the other girls?” she was asked.

She, and many adults, were operating under the impression that adolescent ridicule had gradations. Little steps could enable one to better approximate normal and thus fit in. I have come to the conclusion that most adolescent ridicule is binary. You are either an object of ridicule or you aren’t. If you are, then little factors don’t matter. If you aren’t, you can get away with all sorts of things.

But in eighth or ninth grade I wore saddle shoes. I had outgrown Mary Janes and it was becoming impossible to find shoes with Velcro in my size. A friend who lived in another state had a pair and I liked how they looked. I then discovered I liked how they felt. I prefer hard shoes and have never tolerated sneakers. So many of my sartorial choices come down to sensory considerations. I don’t know as I’ve ever used “sartorial” before in a sentence. So there I was in saddle shoes that were inconsistently polished and generally untied, because I couldn’t tie a bow until I was 16. But I loved them.

Nobody else did. Day after day I climbed the stairs in my saddle shoes. I walked and climbed stairs pretty well at the time, but my progress was hampered by a 30 lb school bag. I weighted under 90 lbs at the time. This was of course before scientists discovered children should not carry more than 15% of their body weight. I wrote a whole poem once about how I didn’t mind doing my homework but objected to carrying it home. I wonder how many subjects would have fit in under 13.5 lbs. No one ever suggested a separate set of books for home or a rolling bag or the use of an elevator. Of course, the fact that I dragged my bag across the floor and lifted it up the steps one at a time did wonders for my social standing, as did the fact that I couldn’t wear a backpack even if it was of sensible weight. So some days, students walking past me up or down would ask me why I didn’t have a backpack or found other things to criticize. Often, though, it was the saddle shoes.

Why don’t you take those back to the bowling alley?

Of course they weren’t bowling shoes. Those shoes were multi-colored but didn’t particularly look like saddle shoes. The soles were smoother, anyway. And I wasn’t about to steal. None of these were helpful answers.

Mostly I wanted to know why they cared.

I never cared what shoes they were wearing. Mostly I never noticed what shoes they were wearing.

If an adult ever heard, they never addressed it. They probably never heard. They didn’t hang out on the stairwells, as a rule. They probably should have.

But they seldom addressed other, similar situations.

Often, they joined in.

Why don’t you want your driver’s license? Why don’t you want to date? You should come to the school dance? How do you know you won’t like it?

(Why can’t you get your daughter to dress like the other girls?)

I never once had an adult say,

“Nightengale can wear whatever she wants so long as it meets the dress code”
“Nightengale doesn’t have to drive now or ever.”
“Not everyone dates”
“School dances aren’t for everyone and no one even has to try one.”
“Stop laughing at Nightengale for wearing her seatbelt.”
“Leave her alone”

Is it any wonder I came home and turned on Mister Rogers, who, every day on television, told children that people could like them exactly the way they were? Of course, watching Mister Rogers was a problem too, or at least, stating out loud that one did.

I had some teachers who appreciated me the way I was and didn’t engage in ridicule themselves, but only once I can recall a teacher standing up for me specifically to other students. Of course, he was hardly a teacher, the head of our technical theatre program, and not much of a conformist himself. But when they started in on me for lugging in a manual typewriter to document set changes, he put an end to it with, “think of it as a laptop you don’t plug in.”

Saddle shoes are neutral. Either you like the way they feel or you don’t. You like the way they look or you don’t. They fit you or they don’t. There is nothing inherently good, or bad, or fashionable or comfortable or brave or evil about saddle shoes.

It’s all in the context.

(See the social model of disability parallel here?)

Saddle shoes were popular in the 50s.

They apparently made a brief resurgence in some locations in the early 90s.

They were an object of ridicule where I lived in the early 90s.

They are retro now, so retro that there are online instructions how to decorate a pair of sneakers to resemble saddle shoes. The fact that I would never have tolerated these soft ersatz saddle shoes just irritates me more.

So no, I can’t find any lighthearted retro joy in making a pair of fake saddle shoes for a 50s theme at that school.

Not what I remember what saddle shoes meant then.

And I hope that, if there is now at that school, a little girl, or any student, really, who wears saddle shoes, or other shoes they can’t tie, or cardigan sweaters, or who doesn’t want to date, or go to dances, or sits on their knees, or all of those things and more

Or does anything else that makes them an object of ridicule, because it isn’t the specific thing, the things are neutral.

But whatever the specifics,

I hope that the same adults who are planning the fundraiser with such glee

Might notice the student and the ridicule

And say something.

Because that might be the only time anyone ever does.
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