Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Embarrassment (01/12/12)
TITLE: Beyond the Gray Oxfords
By Beth Muehlhausen
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That same year Tammy entered eighth grade. Her friends traded their old bobby socks and scuffed leather black-and-white saddles for wardrobes of red, black, and navy blue flats worn with garter-belted hose. She did not.
“I’m prescribing remedial shoes for Tammy,” the strident doctor said. “Only the left bunion needs help, but we can’t have her wearing mismatched shoes, now can we?” With angular features, arching eyebrows, and glasses perched low on his nose, he seemed a male version of Cruella DeVille.
Whenever this physician drained fluid from around Tammy’s bunion joint, she was traumatized by the mammoth hypodermic needle. “You can buy the special shoes at such-and-so shoe store,” he told Tammy’s mother. “Just ask for the such-and-so brand, and tell them I sent you.” Anything would be better than that awful needle, Tammy reasoned. But she was wrong.
The clerk at the shoe store seemed upbeat and encouraging. He carefully measured Tammy’s feet before disclosing her one-and-only choice: a pair of blunt-nosed, thick-soled, laced-up gray oxfords. Compared to her friends’ flashy new flats, they seemed masculine and clumsy-looking. Tammy’s spirits deflated.
When clique formed at school, the usually bright and personable Tammy turned morose and wasn’t included. The clique’s ringleader, Cindy, brainwashed her followers with the bravado of a communist dictator. Girls of this age adjusting to the physiological and emotional challenges of young womanhood can be brutally insensitive toward one another, and those bowing to Cindy’s power proved stereotypical. Hose-clad members of her group laughed at Tammy’s thick socks and boyish shoes, and nicknamed her “Combat Boots.” During lunch hour Tammy rinsed dirty dishes in the cafeteria to pay for her lunch, and was grateful for the silent company of the greasy stainless sink with its overhead spray nozzle.
The gray oxfords disfigured and branded Tammy. Every morning she loathed them. All day she detested her outcast identity because of them, and after school she refused to subject herself to the aloofness of the neighborhood kids. At night she sadistically banned her detested oxfords to the closet. And yet in the midst of ongoing embarrassment, they also tutored her in lessons that could not be spoken – lessons that challenged Tammy’s young heart and taught her to be patient and strong.
A day came when school ended, as did the shoes’ tutorial. Tammy’s bunion had healed, and she literally left the gray oxfords, and their stigma, behind. On Labor Day she jumped in the car, barefooted, as her family headed to their recreational lake cottage for the summer.
The dress code at the lake consisted of bare feet and swimsuits, and possibly flip-flops and occasional t-shirts and shorts. All through the summer, boats occupied by teenaged friends came and went at the pier while free-spirited Beach Boys sang on the radio. The previously problematic bunion, the shoes, the sneers and odd looks no longer defined Tammy. It was almost as if she’d never known the intense, almost debilitating embarrassment.
Three months later Tammy returned home and gladly banished the gray oxfords to the depths of a gaping paper sack wearing a logo stamped in navy blue: Goodwill Industries. The day after Labor Day, she waltzed up the steps of the town’s high school building - a renewed ninth grader humming “Surfer Girl” and wearing a fashionable tight skirt with matching flats.
That same day Tammy met Lois, a disabled ninth grader with leg braces who had just moved into the area. As Lois hobbled down the hall while others either ignored or stared at her, Tammy watched empathetically, knowing the heartache they caused. Lois’ pained expressions cut deep into Tammy’s own heart, and by the end of the day Tammy knew she was destined to become Lois’ friend.
Tammy’s friendship with Lois quickly blossomed. Lois’ experiences with braces, and Tammy’s with her ugly gray oxfords, seemed to equalize the two girls in ways that fostered a special sensitivity toward others who were misunderstood. Both had learned a valuable lesson: underneath the superficial layers, we are all vulnerable human beings learning self-confidence within a proper framework of humility. Our job, perhaps especially in the midst of pain, is to become ambassadors of hope.
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