During the last week of school, I read this Facebook post from East Ridge Middle School teacher Ben Hunsucker:
“We live in a society that judges more upon looks than actions or character, and shoes are the biggest social status symbol. If you aren’t wearing nice shoes, you aren’t cool. As a testament to those who can’t afford the nicest footwork, I’ve worn the same pair everyday this school year. The kids have made fun of them since August. “Them ugly church shoes”.. “No grip at the bottom”… but to them, even though I had on ugly shoes, I remained cool.
I wanted to be an example for those without the nicest shoes.—“If Mr. Hunsucker can be cool with those shoes, I can be cool, too.”
On the last day of school, a student brought me a gift. He spent his own money and bought me a new pair of shoes. They are not the most expensive shoes, but they are definitely the coolest, most heartfelt pair in my wardrobe.”
This is a story about a teacher who has made a connection with his sixth-grade students. Kids are growing up much sooner than those of previous generations. The age of innocence is but a brief moment. By sixth grade, they’re subjected to peer pressure that we managed to avoid until high school.
Oddly enough, at least to us geezers, shoes are their primary focus. Some say it started with Michael Jordan, and the shoe styles he popularized in the 1990s. Current NBA stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry are selling lots of “kicks” today.
Ben admits he gets it. “I like shoes…a lot!” he told me. He’s a 2010 graduate of East Ridge High, and just completed his second year as a Language Arts teacher at the neighboring middle school. He’s still young enough to see the world through his students’ eyes. “Adults look at you, and wonder what kind of person you are,” he said. “But kids check out your shirt and your shoes. They judge you on things adults don’t even notice.”
So he decided to try an experiment, starting on the first day of classes. He wore his oldest, most ragged pair of “off-brand boat shoes.” He said, “They were in rough shape on day one, and as the year went on, they were in sad shape. The bottoms had worn off. I was pretty much walking on bare feet.”
The reaction from his sixth-graders, at first, was good-natured laughter. As the days turned into weeks, the insults kicked in. “They’re super-hyper at that age,” he said. “They want to play with the teacher. They got comfortable with me. They know I expect a lot from them in class, but before the bell rings, and at the end of class, they know they can cut up with me.”
The kids couldn’t believe this cool, twenty-something teacher would be seen in public wearing ugly shoes. “Your shoes are side talkin,” they would say. Ben was kind enought to translate: “The sole has come loose or unglued, so when you walk it looks like they are talking.”
The next-to-last day of school, a boy named Landon Roessel looked at his teacher and said, “You gonna be here tomorrow?” Ben said he would. “I’ve got a gift for you,” Landon said. “What size shoe do you wear?” Ben told him he wore an 11, but no gift was necessary. That didn’t matter. When a sixth-grader sets his mind to something, it’s going to happen.
The next day, as soon as the bell rang, Ben noticed a box on his desk. “To my big brother, my best teacher,” the note read. Landon said “Open it, see if they fit.” Ben opened the box to find a pair of shoes, just purchased from Walmart. You can find them on the shelves. Comfortable, simple, cheap. They’re under ten bucks, including tax.
The shoes were a perfect fit. “It made made me happier than any gift I’ve ever received,” Ben said. “Next school year, I’m wearing ’em every day.” Ben is transferring to Signal Mountain this fall, and he has no doubt his shoes will not fit in. “For one thing, they’re not the school color. And they’re definitely not hip. But I think I’ve made my point, and I’ll do it again. It’s not about your shoes. It’s about you who are as a person.”
An eight-dollar pair of shoes may not mean much to you, or to me. But they mean something to a sixth-grade boy named Landon Roessel. And it means even more to a teacher who used a worn-out pair of shoes to teach a lesson that is not in any textbook, or on any state achievement test. As Ben gave Landon a hug, he made him a promise. “I’m never getting rid of these shoes.”