My youngest is off to a new school this week and the preparation makes me sigh. My preparation. For revisiting that strange planet called Middle School with its unique brand of intrigue.
Not so long ago, my older son introduced me to the finer points of Middle School during a shopping expedition and I remember thinking, Lewis Carroll, step aside.
We were off to buy sneakers, a once simple activity that had suddenly become highly complicated. He’d asked me to take him for weeks, and I’d put him off. He already had a pair of sneakers, and I didn’t understand why he needed another one. Finally, I relented.
As we got into the car he asked if we could pick up one of his friends (I’ll call him James Dean). Then, thirty seconds after we arrived at the store, another friend sauntered in. I’ll call him James Dean’s Cousin. James Dean and my son both acted like it was a huge coincidence that James Dean’s Cousin had just shown up.
“Are these two here for a fashion consult?” I asked my son, marveling that teenage boys would want to shop together.
“They have to make sure they’re real,” he said.
I walked gingerly up to a pair of sneakers perched regally atop a Lucite pedestal. I gave them a little poke. They seemed real enough.
“I don’t think this store is going to sell counterfeit sneakers,” I said. Three pair of eyes rolled.
We were not shopping in a bona fide sneaker store. It was a skate store: skate shoes, skateboards and skate clothing. There was an element of “cool” to the store that seemed to make James Dean feel right at home. Another friend bounded into the store out of breath. This boy lived over a mile away, but it appeared that he had run over quickly in order to partake in the activities.
James Dean gave the okay to a pair of green on green, leather and suede high tops. “I like those,” my son said. “But I can’t get them.”
“Why not?” I asked.
He explained that another friend already had those sneakers.
“How about these?” I asked, picking up a pair of multicolored Nikes with a gold Swoosh.
“Taken,” he said.
The same kid: Marlon Brando. Brando evidently had the green ones, the gold swooshes and six other pair. The boys all agreed: You can’t get the same shoes as someone else. They told me a story about a reasonably popular kid who showed up at school with the same shoes as another boy and was instantly branded a “biter.”
I used context clues to determine that a Biter is a middle-school version of a Copy Cat.
“Excuse me,” I said. “But if a kid has eight pair of sneakers, he’s not allowed to say that no one else can have the same sneakers as he does.”
The boys all shook their heads, pitying me my cluelessness.
I made an eye-contact appeal to the store clerk. A look that said, Even though I’ve been an adult since before you were born, we still have in common that we are no longer in middle school. So can you please help me out here?
The clerk caught on right away. “My friends and I wear the same shoes all the time,” he said to the boys.
This idea so repulsed James Dean and James Dean’s Cousin that they just up and left, muttering something about looking at sneakers in another store down the street.
The store clerk went on, “That kid with eight pair of sneakers needs to get a life. He’s in here every day!”
This had the exact opposite effect on my son as I had hoped. His eyes lit up and I could already see his little brain working hard trying to figure out how he might organize his life to be in this store every day; how he, too, could own eight pair of sneakers. How, perhaps, if he did own eight pair of sneakers, middle school would not feel like such a mystery planet after all.
I launched into my speech: “I don’t understand. People sell fake sneakers? You can’t have the same as anyone else? There are only so many designs! How can everyone have a unique pair of sneakers?”
These are the types of questions that get asked just prior to your innocence being peeled away. Questions that usher you from that blissful land called ignorance and into the mayhem called middle school. It happens gently and quietly and, if you’re lucky, privately. With any luck, you’ll be wearing the right shoes for the trip.