It was one of those days in the middle of May when it was absolutely torturous to still be in school. The smell of late spring wafted in through the windows, making us absolutely drunk with the feeling. Summer. Was. Approaching.

And not just summer, but the end of middle school. Soon, we would be free.
Actually, in Kingsport, Tennessee the smell that wafted in through the window in late spring or any season was the noxious mixture of the Eastman Kodak and Meade Paper plants. But this story is not about the environmental politics of an industrial Appalachian town.

It’s about middle school politics.

The moment that I exploded came during a Monday morning homeroom. Morning announcements were over. The pledge of allegiance had been said. Most had settled into that quiet five-minute period when everyone was supposed to be concentrating on the homework they should have done the weekend before.
My concentration was broken by a quiet snicker.

“Get a look at those things.”
“Those shoes. They look like clown shoes.”
“Oh, hell yeah. They look like they could walk up walls or something.”
“What are those? Buddy Keds?”
“More like Super Keds!”

And that. That is the moment where I broke. I stood up, took the shoe off my foot, shoved it into the offender’s face and yelled…

“Do you see this shoe? Do you have anything else to say about this shoe?! Because I don’t appreciate you talking about me as if I and this shoe are the same thing!…”

I should back up here and explain a little more about the details, the context behind what led to this moment of inexplicable courage and unsolicited sermonizing.
John Sevier Middle School was made up of a class structure as strict and distinct as any third-world country ever invented. When we walked in the door of sixth grade, we were practically handed assignments on the first day.

Preps. Nerds. Rednecks.

The distinctions were unique, never to intermingle. Who were these different factions? Well, let me take a moment to introduce you to the various parties…

In this corner, and generally at the bottom of the social order, we had the rednecks. Rednecks were a little bit scary. They generally wore black t-shirts, often for country or heavy metal bands, and their hairdos involved mullets and highly teased and hairsprayed bangs that defied gravity. They smoked in the bathrooms and out back after school. Approximately 2-3 of them got pregnant per year.

Next were the preps. Being a prep was the most coveted status at Sevier. Their parents were doctors, lawyers, and executives at Eastman. Preps wore the best brand name clothes – British Knight tennis shoes, Sebago loafers, Guess jeans, Coca-Cola jersey shirts. They tucked their jeans down into slouchy socks with complete precision. Their hair was silky, even when permed, and perfect. They coupled off with each other. Back then, we followed their romances, like teens today follow celebrities. And even though they were only thirteen years old, we knew that their children together would be beautiful.

Finally came the nerds. Nerds were not necessarily smart, but many of them were. Nerds often wore off-label clothing and tried very hard to be cool despite their social awkwardness. A person could sometimes randomly and without much provocation be moved into the nerd category simply by falling from grace. My friend, Jeremy, had become a nerd when he earned the nickname “Skidmarks” on a band trip after getting food poisoning.

I, of course, was the queen of the Nerd Herd. I desperately yearned to break out of this mold. I knew that I could be better than this label. I loved my friends and knew that they were better than this stupid pigeonhole they’d been shoved into. Occasionally, we turned on each other. That was nasty.

But worse than the bickering amongst ourselves, there were the public and private, the big and the little, ways that the system picked apart our dignity on a near daily basis. Sometimes hourly. Everything about the way it worked was built on keeping us bullied and cowed and in our place. I quietly tolerated the abuse.

The movie Dirty Dancing came out in 1987, the summer between seventh and eighth grade. Among other things, it skyrocketed Keds to top of the charts of our middle school clothing fantasies. Well, Keds and cut offs. Cut offs I was able to score quite easily. The Keds were another thing altogether.

My mother was a particular non-believer in name-brand clothing. She would gladly buy me a $5 pair of Keds-style tennis shoes at Wal-mart, but they were always missing that extremely important blue tag on the back of the heel. I had fantasies of going into a regular shoe store, discretely ripping the blue tag off of a real pair of Keds and hot-gluing it to the back of my imposters.

On the weekend before this fateful Monday morning, I had been helping my mother clean out her closet in preparation for a yard sale. Somewhere, in the back of said closet, I found them. A pair of Keds so dirty, grass stained, and old, you would have barely recognized them. Let us be clear. They were from the 70s. They had red stitching and laces. These were not the current fashionable Keds that I had so long yearned for. But they were Keds. And so I had gone tromping out of the house that day wearing shoes that were two sizes too big for my feet just because of the blue tag on the heal. I just didn’t get it. Nor did I know what I was in for.

So, back to our scene…

“Get a look at those things,” said Tommy.
“What?” asked Pepper.
“Those shoes. They look like clown shoes.”
“Oh, hell yeah. They look like they could walk up walls or something.”
“What are those? Buddy Keds?” chimed in Cameron.
“More like Super Keds!”
“Can I get a demonstration?”

“Buddy” was the worst insult you could attach to anything. Buddy was a way of indicating something was not the name brand or exactly the right conformity and therefore just generally subpar.

As I sat there, listening to the taunts build, I started to feel this intense pressure start to build up in chest. I imagined myself like one of those cartoon character teakettles. In many ways, this was really no different than the casual-to-intense ridicule that I and my other friends had endured on countless other occasions. I’m not sure why, on this day, I reacted so differently. Perhaps it was the spring air.
Perhaps it was the complete indignation that came from the particular insult, hurt, and confusion that came from striving so hard around the whole Keds issue.

For one reason or another, like a teakettle, I began to scream.

I shoved the offending object into Tommy’s face.

“Do you see this shoe? Do you have anything else to say about this shoe?! Because I don’t appreciate you talking about me as if I and this shoe are the same thing. Do you have anything else to say about this shoe?”

Stunned silence.

“Here. I’m going to leave this shoe here for you to talk about it while I’m not in the room. And here you can have the other one too.”

With that, I took off my other shoe and threw them both down at Tommy’s feet. I booked it for the door. Now, I don’t know where I thought I was going at 8:30 in the morning with no shoes on my feet and no money in my pocket, but I was getting the hell out of there. When I got into the hallway, I heard the voice of my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Byrd, behind me: “Stop right there.”

I turned around; there she stood. And behind her were Tommy, Pepper, and Cameron looking like they had just seen the door to an alternate universe open up before their very eyes. She looked at them. She looked at me. “Now, I was just wondering if you have anything else you’d like to say to these people.”

“Well, yes, I do…! I’m so sick of you and you and you and ALL OF YOU and the way you make fun of us all the time. I’m so sick of it. It’s not human. It’s been three years of this crap. Who do you think you are?…”

I went on and on in this long stream of consciousness monologue. I was JFK. I was MLK. I was Ghandi reincarnated in a 13-year-old white middle school girl’s body. I said everything that I’d ever wanted to say. And I said it well…

“…And just because my father doesn’t work alongside your father doesn’t mean he doesn’t put his pants on one leg at a time. And from here on out, I’m telling you, I’m not taking your shit anymore.”

With that, I came to a screeching halt. I knew I’d crossed a line by using the swear word in front of the teacher. And really, I’d meandered into a little bit crazy territory with the father/pants part. Mrs. Byrd looked at the three perpetrators and asked, “Do you three have anything to say?”

A quick and half-hearted round of “sorries” was passed out. With that, they all turned to go back into the classroom. And that was the moment that my seeming triumph turned into complete and utter horror. I realized that every single doorway on the entire eighth grade hall was open. Dear God. Every person in the entire eighth grade had heard my tirade. And then it dawned on me. If they hadn’t heard it first person, they would certainly hear about it through others in short order. I went back into the classroom, put on my shoes, gathered my books, and waited for the bell to ring. The first two periods were remarkably quiet. I thought that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal after all.

But then, in third period Math, we had a substitute, which generally provided the space for a lot of sparring and banter. The energy in the room was very weird. I wasn’t entirely sure if it had to do with what had happened, but I had a sense that maybe it did. At the end of the class, a girl I’d never spoken to in the entire three years we’d been in school together dropped a note on my desk:

Dear Shannon: I know we don’t know each other very well, but I heard about this morning. If you ever want to hang out, I’d really like that. You seem cool. Chrissy

At lunch, all of us Nerds had an opportunity to gather and reflect on what a coup I had managed to pull off. We were joyous. We walked around with our heads held high, meeting people’s gazes straight on. My friend, Jeremy, joked that he wanted to make a t-shirt that said “I’m proud to be Shannon’s friend.”

Just after lunch came gym and that’s where stuff got even stranger. Girls from every part of the social spectrum surrounded me. I think some were just fascinated – like maybe they thought I was going to kill myself and they wanted to get a look at me before that happened. Most of the rest just wanted to talk about the outrageous course of events.

By the time I made it back to my locker, I found that it was crammed full of notes. Expressions of good wishes. Kids asking questions. A few were less than well intentioned. But even that didn’t bother me. Because for that one day, I was the most popular girl in school. As embarrassing and strange as it was, I had somehow managed to transcend.

Two days later, someone thought it would be very cute to trip one of my friends on her way to the bus, thus ending our brief foray in the sunlight. Soon enough, we would all go our separate ways for the summer. And then would come high school. High school brought the promise of reinventing oneself. Two middle schools came together there. Lots of room to spread out. You could specialize more with activities. Get lost in the pursuit of things. At least, that was the dream we all clung to.

And sometimes, even today, when I’m feeling bad about myself, like I just don’t do enough to make this world a better place, I think back on that day and smile and remember the way I led my people to a new place by simply standing up and taking off my shoes.


Click here to view the live version of me telling this story at The Moth in Atlanta.