From the time my dad was able to walk, he worked in fields. He loved seeing the fruit of his efforts—the alfalfa swaying in the breeze, the cotton plump and beckoning. Mom also grew up on a farm, and it was there that she learned to can vegetables and quilt. Together, they were a formidable team—managing their own farm and their household of children.
Farmers are practical people; they do what they can with what they have to raise their crops and support their families. Their world of tractors and plows, of milk cows and chickens, of honking geese and badgering crows is concrete and not caught up in fashion or appearances.
Midway through grammar school, mom determined it was time to send us to the Catholic school in town. It was there that I discovered another world—of crisply pressed dresses and saddle shoes, of fancy lunch bags packed with treats, of wealth I had only seen in dreams. My home-sewn skirts and worn shoes felt awkwardly out-of-place. I was the country girl in a city girl’s space.
Each year mom bought us a pair of new shoes. We excitedly looked forward to this moment. When I was in the eighth grade, however, my world was turned upside-down by a surprise I could not have imagined. Mom presented me with a pair of new nursing shoes.
“The shoes were on sale,” mom announced as she handed me the shoes. I recoiled in disbelief. Seeing my expression she said, “They are good shoes. They’ll last a long time.” Unmoved, I stood there speechless as tears ran down my cheeks.
Mom insisted, “They are good shoes!” But, her claims only brought more tears.
Later, when no one was looking, I got the brown shoe polish from the cabinet and began painting my new shoes. I tried to make saddle shoes, but failed, and then painted the whole shoe. In the end, they were neither white nor brown; rather they were a streaked mud color, and I was horrified.
When mom saw the shoes, she wasn’t pleased, and explained that I wouldn’t have another pair that year. My flats were quite worn, but from my vantage point, they were much better than the new nursing shoes, for school at least.
By the time graduation arrived, duck tape covered the holes in the soles of my shoes, but I didn't mind. Who would notice, I thought.
Then the unthinkable happened.
One of my classmates hosted a graduation party, which I had to attend. On one side of the room, the guys jostled and laughed, and on the other side of the room, the girls whispered and giggled. It was a rather typical party of 13 year olds, at least until Tommy’s mother announced a game--involving shoes.
Each girl had to put one of her shoes into a large bag. As the shoes were collected, Tommy’s mother explained, “Once we have all the shoes, the guys will select a shoe from the bag. Then I will blow this whistle, and they will find the shoe’s match. The lucky owner of the shoe will be his dance partner.”
I wanted to run out of the house, but how would I get home? Where would I go? The thought of anyone seeing the bottom of my taped shoe was too embarrassing for me. But, just as I was planning my escape, two guys brought over the bag and told me to put my shoe inside. I hesitated, and then was admonished to “hurry up!” I finally took off my shoe, never looking them in the eye, and put it in the bag.
The whistle blew, and my heart leapt. I scanned the room, but I saw no way to escape. The boys started walking around the room with a shoe in their hand; they were looking for a match. There was much frivolity, and everyone seemed happy—except me.
Finally, Chuck came over and stood in front of me. I wanted to disappear. He was one of the popular kids, big and imposing. “Is this your shoe?” he said bluntly. I nodded sheepishly. His face was expressionless as he said, “Well, let’s dance.” I was stunned. The classmate I feared the most, didn’t care about the condition of my shoe.
Later I learned that Chuck’s dad was a farmer, though they lived in town. Could it be that he felt like an outsider too?
Chuck’s brooding façade hid his accepting heart, but that night I got to see it. And, because of what I saw I learned that fitting in has little to do with the soles of our shoes or where we live or what we wear, and everything to do with an open heart.
I suspect Chuck would have danced with me—even if I had worn my nursing shoes.