KEDS (Yes, the white canvas shoes)

By: Stephanne Morris Marsh, Missionary Kid from Ecuador

These seem so innocent, don’t they?

Earlier this fall, there was a story about a little boy in Florida that was a HUGE Tennessee fan. It was spirit day at his school, and children were encouraged to wear a t-shirt to represent their favorite college or college football team.  This little boy took an orange shirt and a piece of paper on which he had hand-written “UT”, and pinned it to the front.  At that time, I read that story and my heart broke.  I sobbed like a baby.  I cried buckets of tears.  I cried for the little boy who had been so creative and so ready to participate, using what he had.  I cried for the little boy who just wanted to do what everyone else was doing. I cried for the little boy who did the best he could and then was ridiculed for it. I cried so hard, because this was my story, only it was a pair of Keds instead of a college football shirt. You see, I cried, because I know intimately what it is like to be teased and made fun of for doing the very best that you can do with what you have.  This story was very personal to me, because I had lived it. I started writing my memories down then, that very day, but had to stop, because I was so overcome with emotion.  

You see, I was a teacher for 12 years. I taught elementary, middle-school, and high-school, I made it my mission every single day to protect and shield children from feeling what that little boy felt. My first rule in my classroom was, “above all else, be kind, kinder than necessary.” It was because I knew how devastating it can be when people are unnecessarily mean. Because of my multi-cultural upbringing, in all of my pitiful awkwardness, I had this amazing and innate ability to observe, assess, and attempt to smooth things out for others in a big crowd.  I was very good at watching situations and running interference to keep things from escalating.  I could add tidbits in to make others feel better about something that was happening.  I still do this, to this day.  I am the room moderator in every situation I am placed in, most times unwittingly.  I truly believe that this is a gift.  Most people only see what they want to see.  Because of my upbringing, I am blessed to see multiple angles as well as a way to bring them all together. 

It was 1986. Admittedly, I was a backwards, mixed-up, ragamuffin of a missionary kid.  I had spent the majority of my first 12 years in the third-world country of Ecuador and had a Spanish accent on my English, a propensity to forget how to say some things in English, a total lack of style and ability to use what I had to fit in.  Long story short, I looked like an awkward, poorly dressed, poorly coiffed, kid. I just didn’t know it.  Yet.

We had come back to the States to itinerate (see Hatchback of the Datsun for a glimpse into itineration). It was only for a year, so my parents rented a house in Mauldin, South Carolina because that was a good base for traveling to different churches all over the southeast so that we could share our hearts for Ecuador. I was enrolled in Hillcrest Middle School, and naively, I was extremely excited to start 7th grade.  I wasn’t aware of it, but Hillcrest Middle was one of the more affluent schools in the Greenville County School District.  Therein, (the lack of that knowledge, and the lack of experience with wealth and material things) lay my downfall and my first experience with cruelty, that resulted in a destroyed self-esteem.  That self-esteem took a long time to rebuild.  It was only after I figured out that my identity was more than my appearance, my identity was in being the blood-bought and saved-by-grace daughter of the almighty God, that I was able to hold my head high.  If you are reading this, your identity is not in what you own, what you wear, what you look like, or what you don’t look like.  Your true identity is only found in Jesus. You will never be content or happy until you figure this out.

The story goes something like this: All of my clothes were hand-me-downs from a cousin. I had a denim skirt, a striped button down shirt, a school-bus (color, not picture) yellow sweater, a pair of jeans that were about two inches too short, a blue t-shirt that said “BMA” (Business Mens Assurance) on it, and a pair of white canvas shoes that my mama got at K-Mart for $3.  I still remember her counting out the change of the total plus tax for the pair of shoes and her telling me that she had worn similar shoes growing up, and that they would “go with everything.” I also had a pair of patent leather black Sunday school shoes and a pink drop-waist dress that my mama had sewn for me. Those items were JUST FOR CHURCH! I wore a combination of the above clothing items every single day.  One day, it was just after school had started, I was in the bathroom trying to fix my skirt.  The button at the top had fallen off, and the zipper kept unzipping.  I was wearing the striped button-down shirt that day, and it wasn’t long enough to cover the zipper.  I was pondering what to do, when I heard a group of the popular girls (I knew enough to know I was NOT a popular girl) talking.  As I listened, I realized they were talking about me.  They were saying things like, “she wears that skirt LIKE THREE TIMES A WEEK!” “Seriously, like, gag me with a spoon, why does she do that?” And then I heard the following, and it was the first time I had ever considered this issue. I heard, “why does she wear those cheap plastic knock-off shoes? I mean seriously, get some KEDS!” They finished fluffing their hair, glossing their lips and left the restroom, completely unaware of how they had destroyed the fragile girl in the bathroom stall. I left the bathroom, pulling my shirt down over my zipper and was walking towards my class, thinking hard and trying not to cry.  I found a rubber band laying on the ground, and I used it to loop my skirt shut by pulling the rubber band through the buttonhole and tying it around the first belt loop. 

There was a girl in my class that had a physical disability – severe scoliosis. She was hunched over and had to wear a cumbersome brace, but it didn’t bother her one single bit!  We had become what I considered to be good friends. This girl was sweet, kind, bubbly, and was always excited to see me.  She had the very best attitude and made my life bearable. She ate lunch with me and even eventually, invited me over to her house.  I gathered my courage and asked her, “ummm, can you please tell me, what are “Keds”?” She laughed and pointed to her feet.  She said, “they are tennis shoes.  Like this. See?” And she twisted her foot around and showed them to me. I was very puzzled and said, “Mine aren’t Keds?” She asked me to show her the back of them.  I did, and she said, “No, those aren’t Keds because they don’t have the blue tag on the back. But don’t worry! They look just like Keds!” I didn’t have the courage to tell her what had happened in the bathroom.

I went home that night and sat in the dark, long past my bedtime trying to get up the nerve to ask my mama and daddy for a pair of Keds. Finally, my mama noticed me sitting in the shadows and she asked me what I was doing.  I went towards my mama and said, “Mama, could we please buy a pair of Keds?” My mama looked towards my daddy, and he shook his head slightly.  She looked back at me and held out her hand, beckoning me to come towards her.  She put her arm around my waist, smoothed back my hair and told me that I had just gotten new shoes that looked “just like” Keds.  She then said that we didn’t have extra money at that time to buy another pair of new shoes, but maybe for Christmas. I was sent off to bed, where I lay awake most of the night thinking. 

My mama woke me up for school the next morning, and I jumped out of bed eager to begin the day. You see, overnight, I had devised a plan!  I hurriedly got dressed, choosing the too short jeans and the blue BMA tshirt, grabbed my Keds and then opened my drawer. In my drawer I had a pack of markers.  I took my shoes and very carefully, drew a blue rectangle on the back of each of my shoes, and then carefully colored the squares in.  I was very excited! I had made my own Keds, and I thought they looked just like everyone else’s. I was eager to fit in and thought I had solved the problem.

I put them on my feet, and merrily went to school.  I was walking into school when I realized the “popular” girls’ carpool was walking in right behind me.  I tried to walk nonchalantly, however, it wasn’t very long before I heard them whispering, giggling and could hear every single word they said.  They were once again, talking about me.  “Good grief! What is she wearing today? Doesn’t she know her jeans are too short?” And then the giggling and whispering stopped and let’s just call the ringleader “Becky”. Becky and all of her friends stopped walking, dropped their backpacks and started pointing at me. They were literally falling over laughing as they pointed at me. Being as naïve as I was, I never thought to ignore them and keep walking.  I stopped and turned around. Becky walked right up to me and said, “You are such a freak.  WHO DRAWS A FAKE KEDS TAG ON THE BACK OF THEIR SHOES WITH MAGIC MARKER???” And then she poked her finger into my shoulder and said, “Oh yeah, you do.  The Ecuador freak does things like that.” 30 years later, and I can still hear their voices, their raucous peals of laughter, and her finger, poking into my thin shoulder. I can hear and feel every single word she spoke. 

I was frozen in place, frozen in time, when they finally decided they had laughed enough. They pushed past me, knocking my backpack to the floor and left me standing there completely wounded and undone.

At some point, I began to cry.  I cried so hard and so long that the guidance counselor finally called my mother to come and pick me up from school.  When she got there and I stumbled into her arms, I couldn’t even explain what had happened.  When we got home, she sat me down and asked me to tell her what happened. When I finally was able to speak the words, I remember my mama’s beautiful green eyes welling up with tears.  She was wiping them fast and then they were flashing with anger.  She told me all of the right things, and she poured wisdom and love into me, but nothing could fix what had happened.  She asked me to take off my shoes and she put them in the sink where she proceeded to scrub and scrub at then with bleach, Comet, and baking soda. She scrubbed until her hands were red and raw. As she scrubbed, she cried. I remember sitting in the chair in the kitchen watching her furiously scrub and cry, and I realized, my mama was hurting as much as I was.  Perhaps more, because she fully understood and knew there was nothing, she could do to fix it.

I listened to my mama and daddy whispering that night and my mama telling my daddy how much she wanted to go buy me a new pair of canvas shoes at Kmart.  I remember her crying again, and the slump and defeat in my daddy’s shoulders as he told her that he didn’t have $3 to go and buy a new pair of shoes, as much as he wanted to. 

My shoes turned a dingy yellow from all of the bleach and were still wet when I put them on the next morning. And that horrible blue tag that I had drawn, was still there. If anything, it was even brighter and more noticeable than before.  My parents’ hearts were broken sending me into that school that day.  If there was one thing I could change, I would make sure they never knew what happened.  That whole situation hurt my mama and daddy way more than it hurt me.

I walked into the school, and sure enough, there were those girls.  They made comments about how I was wearing the same outfit I had worn the day before, and I looked at them, and did what became my coping method for the remainder of my time in the USA.  I smiled sweetly and very calmly told them in Spanish something to this effect, “I know you think my clothes are ugly, and that is ok, because my parents have given me the best they have. Moreover, my heart is pretty, and yours are not.  I would rather have a pretty heart than pretty clothes, any day.”  Me speaking Spanish became my defense mechanism, and I used it quite often after that.  However, once they realized that their words and teasing didn’t get a reaction out of me, they soon left me alone. 

That Christmas, I received two presents. I got a name brand shirt from Express and a pair of Keds.  And do you know? 30 years later and I still have the shirt, and I have the box my Keds came in.  I wore those Keds all the way through college. In my Keds box are bits and pieces and memories from high-school.  I bet none of those girls ever had anything that they appreciated or treasured as much as I did my real pair of Keds. I now know exactly how much my parents sacrificed to get me those things so that I could “fit in”. What they didn’t realize was, they had instilled in me life-skills and character that were far more valuable than any “thing”.

One thing that no one else in this whole entire world knows except me, since my mama passed away in 1999, is that that very same year, it was school spirit week, and we were supposed to wear either Clemson or University of SC shirts.  I wanted to wear a Clemson shirt, but we didn’t have one. So, I took one of my daddy’s white undershirts and pinned a piece of paper to the front. I drew a big “CU” in orange marker on the piece of paper. When I came to the table for breakfast, my mama gently put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Steph…” I looked up at her and said, “Yes ma’am?” And she said, “You have done a great job on the t-shirt, but do you remember the blue tagged Keds?” I acknowledged that I did, and she said, “This t-shirt, even though it is the best you have, will be worse than the Keds.” I learned a lot that day.  I learned that my mama was wise, that kids were cruel, and that I was smart for listening. 

From that day forward, I have made it my mission to run interference for others in my vicinity that are in danger of being teased. Call it what you may, it is a lovely gift that came from hard experiences. 

Always, always, always, be kinder than necessary.

A tiny side note…..I sincerely hesitated in publishing this story, because I knew that my daddy would read it and his tender heart would break all over again. Isn’t that they way good daddies’ hearts are? They worry about and have regret over things that weren’t in their control. That being said, I know I said it within the body of my story, but I think it is worth saying again in plain and clear English. My daddy and mama took us on the biggest adventure of our lives when they became missionaries. One of the greatest gifts that I treasure far above any material thing, is the gift my parents gave us by virtue of their example…..embracing and loving people of every skin, language, and nationality. Above that, my mama and daddy NEVER, EVER failed to point us to Jesus and remind us that Jesus was the answer to everything. So daddy, thank you for making my life richer than anyone can possibly imagine. Rich, all because you said YES to Jesus. I love you.

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