Until a few days ago I had never owned a pair of Converse sneakers. In the last year or so I had decided I would like a pair but was uncertain if they were the sort of thing a fifty-year old woman would wear. While in Florida recently I fell in love with a hot-pink pair of Converse shoes, purchased them, and wore them continuously for the rest of my holiday. But what really surprised me was the trip down memory lane these shoes initiated.
When I was ten years old classic Converse sneakers were all the rage. My best friend, also named Laura, wore her black Converse sneakers every day. I remember her mother talking about how expensive the shoes were, and I innocently quipped that I didn’t have Converse shoes because my mother believed that less expensive sneakers would wear out just as quickly and were therefore more practical. (My social skills have improved. I think). This frugality made total sense to me and I didn’t lament my lack of Converse clad feet in any way. In fact I liked the canvas Zellers-style sneakers I wore. They were designed to look like jeans – complete with a braided trim around the ankle to look like a belt, as well as a pocket on the side of the shoe. When I needed a larger size I was thrilled to find these sneakers in my new size.
As a ten year old I hadn’t yet clued into the social cues and mores that would dictate my life for decades to come. I preferred, and always wore, skirts and dresses – I actually still find skirts more comfortable than jeans. My birthday is in September and at this age my parents always encouraged me to use some of my gift money to purchase back-to-school clothing. In grade five I used the money to buy two dresses. I was perfectly content being who I was and was indifferent to the influence of my peers.
As is often the case for tween girls, things began to change in grade six when I was eleven. This was when the “mean-girls” began to flex their muscles and impose the social hierarchy that would govern our lives for years to come. At this stage of my life I was attending a school in the US and to this day I associate the rigid social stratification that I encountered as an American vs. Canadian “thing”. Though these days I know it likely has more to do with the ages that I moved between these two countries.
In grade six there was a cluster of very cool girls in my class. Their ringleader was Alyssa. To this day I can picture her petite frame, clad in skin-tight Jordache jeans, wedge shoes, and colourful velour blouses. She always had a comb in her back pocket, something that perplexed me because I had been taught combing one’s hair in public was rude. She, along with her fashionable group, read teen romance novels, liked boys, listened to pop-music, and were devotees of The Love Boat. I, on the other hand, continued to wear dresses, lived in a home where classical music was preferred, and watched Little House on the Prairie over Fantasy Island. While not openly forbidden, my parents frowned upon romance novels. I read a few Judy Blume books at school and found them more annoying than entertaining. The protagonists seemed silly and stupid. That year I read Dickens for a book report.
It didn’t take long for Alyssa and her posse to target me. I made it so easy and they pounced without mercy. As a coping strategy, that year I decided to buy my first pair of blue jeans with my birthday money. I was sure that this would get Alyssa off my back. I proudly walked into school one day sporting my new jeans and a velour sweater. I was sure I was the height of fashion and Alyssa, as a result, would leave me alone. Upon seeing me Alyssa grabbed my butt, spun me around, and reading my back-pocket loudly commented that my jeans were NOT Jordache. They weren’t even Levi’s. The jeans were in fact from a Sears catalogue. It had not occurred to me that the type of jeans I wore mattered. I thought any jeans would be fine. I had much to learn and Alyssa and her group were the self-appointed teachers.
By high school I had learned to blend in a bit more, but I was still clearly labeled a nerd and was firmly located at the bottom of the school’s hierarchy. However around this time I discovered I enjoyed sports. I surprised many, myself included, by making both the track team as well as the local travelling soccer team. As it turns out, sports would be both my salvation and my undoing. With sports I found a place where I fit in and was accepted for my contributions. I was valued for being strong and capable and it was empowering. In many ways it gave me the confidence to begin to challenge the bullying that had dominated my life. But in the rigid social hierarchy of the high-school I attended my athleticism also proved problematic.
At this age I was still attending school in the US where varsity letter jackets were an envied status symbol. To earn one a student had to not only make a varsity team, but contribute to the team’s success – usually by being a starter, scoring points/goals, or securing top three finishes at meets. Varsity jackets were usually the stuff of upper year students. They were rare among grade nine and ten students. By the end of grade nine I had earned enough points in track and field to earn a varsity letter. I was one of two girls in the grade to do so. Interestingly the other girl was an equally unlikely candidate according to our peers. Her name was Alexis and she was a math genius who was tall and large and had huge hands that could hurl a javelin, disc, or shotput, a country mile.
I will never forget the first day I wore my varsity jacket to school. I might as well have painted a huge target on my back. The idea that a grade-nine nerd could earn a varsity jacket was too much for the jocks in my grade, still languishing on the benches of the junior varsity squads, to bear. My ability to multi-task had challenged the social stratification of the school and my peers did not like the message. Not one bit. They made sure I knew about their disapproval. Much to my father’s reasonable disappointment, I stopped wearing the jacket to school. By now my ten-year old voice had been drowned out by the louder voices of my peers. I look back at my fifteen year-old self and I am saddened by my lack of confidence – by my willingness to allow bullies to rob me of my hard-won accomplishment. However I also know that I simply wanted to stop the jeers being directed at me – so my fifty year-old self cuts the teen some slack.
Like many women it has taken me many years of my adult life to rediscover that inner ten year-old who doesn’t give a damn about what people think. I also know that my experiences in high-school strongly influenced my decision to hand-pick a private school, known for valuing and encouraging the holistic development of teens, intentional community, and anti-bullying, for my boys. Like many middle-aged women, I am discovering how liberating it can be to once again live life on my own terms. I also celebrate and actively support the anti-bullying and girl-power initiatives of today. I wonder how they might have influenced my journey had they been prevalent when I was a tween and young teen.
And so I found myself giddy with happiness last week as I wore my new hot-pink Converse sneakers. I didn’t care if they were fashionable. I didn’t care if they were something a fifty year-old women ought to wear. I simply loved that they made me smile and I liked wearing them. It occurred to me as I laced them up that I had finally rediscovered my ten year-old self – the girl who was quite prepared to live life on her own terms, unbothered by the opinions of others. I like to think she has become my role model.
Damn. I like middle age!
Oh, and my sixteen year-old son was thrilled to learn that I still had my varsity jacket. He wanted to know if he could have it.