I was looking at this girl’s Chuck Taylors, and I started thinking about Converse and about the Converse hype when I was in high school. In my tiny environment, we had to wear uniforms and generally not stand out physically. Instead, we were trained to stand out on paper, through academics, where it counts.
But we had to find some ways to differentiate ourselves from others– hairstyles (also very limited– no unnatural colors), stockings, jewelry, and shoes. A few girls I knew transferred from Las Vegas and wore bright yellow stilettos. I was freakishly tall and not entirely comfortable with differentiating myself from others (I was already a teacher’s pet and sang in Jazz Choir, which put me on the map quite enough as far as I was concerned). So I and some other friends decided that we were going to jump on the Converse bandwagon. At the time, they were not a hipster shoe. They were a sort of wannabe punk/emo/goth shoe that were more comfortable than ugly fake skate shoes.
Unfortunately, I was 15 and my grandma still took me shopping. She was much too classy to entertain the idea of going to places like Hot Topic, and I didn’t really want to go there anyway. Those stores intimidated me, and so did the “scenes” to which they catered. But I was a follower, so I had decided that I was going to at least get some Converse to fit in.
Luckily, Nordstrom’s had some. My grandma griped a bit about their lack of arch support, but she’s pretty hip and she understood my desire to fit in. I didn’t really understand it myself– I associated Converse with part of the scene to which I was aspiring, and figured that beyond that the points were moot. Surely color, style, and material didn’t matter as long as they were the hip, high-school-clique-ensuring Converse.
So what did we buy? They were a sort of green olive-colored suede, with pink leather accents. Size 11, because I was 5’9″ at 14 and my feet took after my mother’s.
If I had gone to a “normal” school (and I did, later that year), those Converse would have been like social suicide. Personally, I think that very few 14 year olds have the style insight that the social ladder of that age demands; most just luck out with stylish mothers or gay fathers or early-onset anorexia and an aunt’s credit card. I had none of those (sorry, mom), and was doomed to make my own choices. My beloved Charter school was supposed to praise that, in principle, but even 14 year old honor students know what the right type of Converse is. I wasn’t teased, but I knew I’d done something wrong.
We were all intelligent students, and by 9th grade most of us were there because we wanted to be there. The school was 6th grade through 12th, so many of the middle schoolers were put there by their parents. Those students tended to reiterate that every opportunity they got. It bothered me to no end– from day one, I was there because I had convinced my parents that it was the best thing for me. I was in love with that school. I spent so much time memorizing their mission statement before I was even accepted that I still know it by heart.
Please don’t ask me to recite it.
Anyway, most of us were there because we wanted to be, but that didn’t mean we were all the same type of student. At 14, there seemed to be two types of us: Those who were so academically above average that the bell curve would have looked more like a heartbeat than a sound wave, and those who were… well, simply above average. I fell, literally tumbled, into the second category. We hated the first group. Of course, we were all friends– when the size of your class isn’t much more than a mid-size family reunion, you don’t have much choice– but we couldn’t help it. The teachers we had were practically as new as we were, and they were trained to reward the brains and GPAs. Later, the teachers learned to recognize the difference between ass kissing and intellect within the first roll-call of the first day. And that’s when the Simply Above Average started to reign. That first group seemed to have stepped out of a different era. For them, life was scratchy wool cardigans, high-waisted pants, and shoes with arch support. For them, coffee was a highly addictive drug and Green Day was barely a notch below death metal.
My friends and I were proud to have “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” memorized. We called each other when it came on the radio, even though our parents were unhappy with the cell phone minutes we wasted when it played every half hour. We bent the rules when, instead of properly ironing on our charter-school insignia patches, we stapled them to our sweaters. We skittered around the Principal when we wore pants comfortably on our hips. We drank coffee, for no particular reason except that it smelled like a good way to get through the day.
And, damn it, we wore those Converse, carefully dirtying them first so they looked well-worn, not taking the time to distinguish between the suede and canvas varieties. But I knew. And I got rid of those suede atrocities as soon as I’d acquired some self-respect… and a brand new pair made of brown canvas.