I think I was in the fifth grade or maybe the sixth. My mother had taken me to Hawkinsville to Mr. Ben Silver’s store to get some new tennis shoes. Mr. Silver, who seemed quite ancient to me at the time, measured my foot. He brought out a single pair that fit as well as new shoes could, a pair that was priced to sell. There was only one problem. They were girl shoes.
I told my mother and Mr. Silver that they looked like girl shoes. Mr. Silver, however, was quite convincing. He showed us the box they came in. He explained things about the styling that clearly indicated it was a shoe for young men.
Mr. Silver didn’t change my mind, but he had the confidence of my mother. She was the only one of us with a checkbook. We left with those shoes. The more I thought about it, I figured that two grownups knew way more than one kid. I accepted that Mr. Silver must be right.
The next morning, I boarded the bus to school, a trip with nothing eventful to report. When I got off, Cynthia Graham was standing there on the playground. She was a grade behind me. We both took piano lessons from Mrs. Beddingfield. Cynthia skipped any semblance of a greeting. She asked, with a confused look, “Why are you wearing girl shoes?”
I told her what had happened. I told her that I had suspected they were girl shoes, but that Mr. Ben Silver had assured us that was not the case.
It was a long day in Unadilla. Cynthia kept quiet. I tried to avoid attention. I kept my long feet tucked under the desk as much as I could. On the playground, I never stopped running. The bell finally rang. I sprinted to the bus that would take me home.
Mama took the shoes back to Mr. Silver. He didn’t put up much of a fight. Loss of a shoe sale is a small price to pay for your personal safety. I hope he put them back in the right box.
I don’t recommend sending your male children to school wearing girl shoes. It’s not worth the risk of them having a real tough day. But as I think back to that experience from childhood, I realize that I learned some things that have served me well.
I learned that Cynthia Graham was a good friend. She didn’t ask others why I was wearing girl shoes. She asked me. Good friends will talk to you about things like that, things that you need to know, things that sometimes you don’t want to know. Good friends stay with you, even when the highway ends and the dirt road turns narrow.
I also learned that sometimes it’s best to trust our instincts. In my heart, I knew without any doubt those shoes were made for a girl. But in my head, I listened to Mr. Silver, and I trusted the label on the box. It’s often tempting to form opinions based on labels, based on the outside packaging. The thing that really matters is what’s on the inside of the box.
Maybe Mr. Silver made an honest mistake. Or maybe he needed to sell a pair of shoes so badly, that he couldn’t resist crossing the line with his marketing. We never went back there for shoes again. If he deserved any punishment, that was probably enough.
I don’t remember being mad with Mr. Silver, just a bit aggravated. Years later, sometime after becoming an adult, I realized that he had provided me with a lesson of great value. The lesson was that we all have those Ben Silver moments. We have those times when we are tempted too strongly by the sale. We stand too close to the cash register. We try too hard to make it ring. How we respond to those moments is up to us. What we do, becomes who we are.
Those shoes from Ben Silver’s store are long gone, and I’m very glad. I would never buy another pair, or wear them to school again. But I wouldn’t take anything for all that I learned. The new shoes blues only lasted for a day. The lessons from Ben Silver’s store have lasted a lifetime.