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Oct 14, 2016 | The Rev. Mike Besson

It Starts With The Shoes

"I don't want to wear them anymore."


"Why not?"


"Because the other kids will laugh at me."


He said this with a quivering voice and tear filled eyes. I sighed heavily because I knew this day would come. I knew the day would come when black and white, discount aisle high top shoes from Wal Mart or Pay Less would no longer be good enough; and I don't mean to our son. No, I knew the day would come when he'd be expected to wear a certain kind of shoe in order to avoid facing the wrath of the 4th-5th grade playground fashion police who patrol the school in search of fashion fails. Since I am not a girl, nor do I have a girl, I do not know what warrants the attention of the playground fashion police for the girls at school; but for boys it's the shoes, and, you better not have any cartoon characters on your shirt either. Wal Mart "Shaq" shoes and Pokemon t-shirts are fine until you get to around 4th grade, then, you will have to conform.


Ironically, on the same day when I learned of this, I had lunch with Lorenzo at school and while the kids were walking by I was looking at their feet. Nike. Adidas. Under Armor. The occasional Reebok.


No Wal Mart.


I promised that we'd buy new shoes at Academy on pay day.


It's not the shoes that bother me so much. It's the reality that Lorenzo has now been exposed to something new; what you look like matters. What you wear matters. It's not who you are, it's what you have.  


He's been exposed firsthand to the shame that comes when you're judged to be inferior or not up to the standard of the kids who are making the rules.


His mother went ballistic.  When I told her what had happened she shouted, "WHO ARE THESE KIDS, LET ME AT THEM; I'LL GO NINJA ON THEM." I'm still not clear about what "going Ninja" means but I'll bet it's not good. I certainly understand the concept though; we both want to protect our son from such things. But we know we can't. Matter of fact, when Ellen finished her Ninja remarks something occurred to me that I hadn't thought of when our son was begging to wear his old shoes.


Those playground fashion police are no different than me.


Lorenzo doesn't know this just yet, but he's in for a lifetime of this. He will learn both the spoken and the unspoken rules that dictate whether or not you are considered part of the crowd and once he knows the rules he will have a choice to make. Conform or not. If he chooses not to, he'll be a part of a select group of people who are "weird", "different", "not cool", or worse. This will not only place him in this select group but, if it continues; if he continues to hear what he's "not", then he will begin to withdraw himself from anyone who doesn't understand him.  


And it all starts with the shoes.


We are no different. You and I make both conscious and/or unconscious judgements about the people around us. Are they like us? Are they dressed appropriately? Are they loud? Quiet? Do they think like us? What do they drive? Where do they live? Just the other day while in a public place, I overheard a conversation between two women that went just like this:


Woman 1: "I'll tell you what's wrong with Baines [middle school in Sienna], it's not our kids, it's those kids they bus in from Arcola and Fresno; that's what's wrong."

Woman 2: "You read my mind girl, you read my mind."


Clearly, I was witnessing something not too far removed from the playground. Sienna kids are awesome. Arcola and Fresno kids are trouble. The reasoning behind this classification was based on nothing more than where they live. One group perceived as inferior to another group.


It starts with the shoes.


I have never mastered the art of controlling my thoughts. What I mean is, things just pop in my head. I don't plan it. I don't always like it. It just comes, often without warning. I see something or someone and I have a thought. "Look how red her hair is." "Why does he act like that?" "Geez, do they have to drive around with the bumper hanging off like that; they must be from ______." I'm not proud of these thoughts, but, until I can figure out a way to block them, they are going to come.


When they come, I am faced with a choice. Do I act on them or not? Do I treat someone differently because of my thoughts or not? Do I actually speak what I am thinking or keep it to myself? Do I verbalize, through word or deed, what I am thinking, or do I choose another path?  


That is my choice. I can take the path of the playground fashion police or I can choose something else.


What will we choose?


Like every day, I watched Lorenzo ride off to school on his bike, happy to be wearing year old shoes with holes in the bottom. This made me sad; he'd rather wear worn out shoes with holes than face the wrath of those kids. Conforming is so badly desired that uncomfortable shoes are a better option than being shamed.  I'd like to join his mother in going Ninja on those kids. But I know I can't. I also know that if I did, if I showed up and grabbed them all by the collar and yelled, "HOW DARE YOU JUDGE MY SON OVER HIS SHOES" I'd be the biggest hypocrite on the block.


I've done it. I do it. And when I do, I try real hard to remember to keep my thoughts from going anywhere other than inside my head. On occasion, I even try to interact with the people that I have judged. I may be doing it to make myself feel better but it has an effect on them too.  I know it does. You know how I know?


I've been on the receiving end of shaming more times than I can even remember.    


I starts with the shoes.