“They feel too small!” exclaimed my 8 year old, complaining over the gym shoes that were actually a size too large. “Give me back my sandals. It’s only the first day of school, nobody will care.”
Growing up, back to school shoe shopping was a rare treat. The Bier kids were allotted two pairs of shoes each: a pair of athletic shoes and a pair of “nicer” shoes. Additional, activity- related shoes were acquired second hand. Some classmates might see an additional pair of shoes or two throughout the year depending on sales and whims. I, however, knew that those two September pairs were it, so they better be good.
As much as I loved those back-to-school shoes, putting them on was a mournful rite. We spent summers largely barefoot, a pair of flip flops tossed in the heap by the back door. These were reserved for those occasions when actual footwear was required: church, the once-per-week trip into town to the library, or a visit into the barn. Otherwise we marauded the yard in barefooted glee. Our feet were uniformly black by the end of those summer days. Mom may not have always had the energy to force full baths on all of us kids, but every summer night concluded with us perched on the side of the bathtub for a footbath, transferring our grime to the black bathwater. My soles grew tough, and by the end of the summer I was able to run across the gravel driveway without missing a beat. Those free summer feet rebelled against the new, stiff, back-to-school shoes. They were smothering, way too tight. Rest assured there’s no way they were ACTUALLY too tight. Mom made sure we all had a full thumb’s width of space at the toe, all the better to guarantee a full season’s usage on the rapidly growing Bier brood.
Hiding away those summer toes might as well have occurred alongside corset application. My feet felt stiff and choked. After a few days, the feeling of the ground faded away, dampened by thick soles. My toes got used to their sardine-can existence and stopped straining to stretch. My summer tanned feet began their inexorable slide into the soft, pinkish pallor of February.