This column was originally published on March 11, 2016.
For someone who hates “The Wizard of Oz,” I sure do love red shoes.
I came into my first pair in elementary school: hand-me-down sneakers from my Aunt Monica, a trendsetter who didn’t mind passing them along to her young niece. I was an early bloomer, wearing women’s sizes by fourth grade, and her like-new red shoes fit perfectly on my awkward feet.
And I loved them. They weren’t fancy or name brand, I guess, but I thought they were chic and sophisticated. Because they’d been my aunt’s, they were automatically cool. I wanted to grow up — just not stand out.
I couldn’t help the last part, of course. Loud shoes will do that to a person. And I still remember the irritation I felt the first time I wore them to school, hearing the whispers and feeling the stares heading into my classroom.
For decades (centuries?), I’m sure kids have sized each other up. There have always been haves and have-nots; I was no exception. Though I was serious enough to scare off anyone with a snide comment, I knew my classmates made fun of my “Dorothy” shoes.
I loved them all the same.
By the time I’d outgrown my beloved red sneakers, I went straight into the infamous purple moccasins (complete with tassels). In hindsight, they were hideous — but to my parents’ credit, I don’t remember them flinching. Whether I was in a weird “Looney Tunes” phase or plucking my eyebrows until they weren’t technically eyebrows at all, my mom and dad largely embraced self-expression.
Though with the eyebrows? I expressed way too much.
That all changed by junior high, of course. Middle school can feel like standing on the shore of a rapidly-rising river, never sure when the murky water will overflow. Every day holds the potential for disaster — for humiliation. When will the current finally come for me?
There were no red shoes in middle school. As my classmates became obsessed with corduroys, wide-legged skater jeans and glittery eyeshadow, I wised up to the fact that I’d better go along to get along. Red sneakers and moccasins? More like mock-asins.
In the late ’90s, Airwalks and Vans were it: the trendy shoes of choice. Everyone seemed to have at least one pair — or the knock-offs, anyway. Because these sneakers were costlier than any other footwear I’d quickly outgrown in the past, I knew convincing my parents of their life-changing powers would not be easy.
After much discussion (and many chore-related promises), however, Mom caved. We went to the mall and found my Airwalks: black and blue suede with a bold white logo, still as crisp in my memory as the day I first laced them up.
Remembering the PF Flyers of her youth, I guess Mom took pity on me.
I loved those shoes more than anyone should reasonably love an inanimate object. Adored them so much that, to be honest, I didn’t want to wear them out of the house.
But I had to, of course. I mean, how else would my classmates celebrate my awesome footwear?
And that was that — for a while. As I moved into high school, other brands gained popularity . . . and I outgrew the Airwalks. By that point, I was less concerned with blending in. I became active in the theatre department, a real drama devotee; I found my people. No one there cared much about shoes.
In my twenties? All bets were off. Like the eager 9-year-old once happily donning those hand-me-down sneakers, I let my red-shoe-loving flag fly. There was no one to pressure me, no judging eyes to tell me I couldn’t. Or shouldn’t. I even wore red heels at my wedding.
On Wednesday, I was rummaging through my closet when a pair of familiar flats winked up at me. It was warm, the unofficial start to spring, and I’d already shoved my boots back in a corner. Cherry red and cheerful, they are my favorites: eye-grabbing, unexpected, comfortable.
We all have our color, a signature or trademark: a look that makes us feel bold and powerful and confident. Red makes me brave when I’d rather hide, strong when I’m just a little bit broken.
Gathering up my son, I slipped on those bright flats and strode out into the sunshine.
That Dorothy was really onto something.