I watched a bunch of grade school kids tumble off the school bus the other day. They all carried the same backpacks, and they all wore the same shoes.
Grade school fashions have changed dramatically since I was a kid, but the need to fit in and “be one of the guys” hasn’t. What you wore defined who you were. Then, and now.
Even in high school, the dress code – although unspoken – was rigidly observed. We wore Levis. Period. There were off-brands, but you might as well come to school with “Outcast” written on your forehead as wear them.
We wore argyle socks and penny loafers, highly polished with coins in the slots. Most of us wore short-sleeve shirts with V-neck sweaters. The rich guys, the ones who got new cars for their 16th birthdays, wore T-shirts and cashmere sweaters. Even then there were levels of cool, and we knew our place. Mine was definitely a few levels down from the top.
The exception came when I was in the first grade, living in the North Woods of Wisconsin, a hefty 12-mile bus ride from school. When school started the day after Labor Day, I boarded the bus wearing a pair of ordinary lace-up oxfords. All the other guys were wearing shiny leather boots, and they quickly made it clear I was a misfit.
The only thing that saved me from total humiliation was another kid who wore glasses — thick coke bottle glasses that slid down his nose. Most days we sat together on the bus and pretended to ignore the taunts.
Then came winter, snow and slush, and my shoes were soaked by the time I got home from school. As bad as the ridicule from the boot brigade was, Mom and Dad made it worse by buying me a pair of galoshes. There’s a special sound galoshes make as you clump along in the slop. Like a plow horse slogging through wet mud. Now even the teachers knew I was a misfit. I was miserable.
Mom and Dad must have known because on Christmas morning I got the surprise of my life. Under the tree was the most magnificent pair of boots I had ever seen. Dad said they were Gokey Botte Sauvage boots, patterned after those worn by early French fur traders.
Even better, the right boot had a sheath to carry a jack knife. And, oh, yeah, my other present that year was a three-blade, bone handle pocket knife that fit perfectly in my boot. The other guys had to carry their knives in their pockets.
Best of all, a couple of the tough kids invited me to sit with them on the bus after that.