W Eighth grade. 1965.
Martinsville High School
The girls who had been my friends in 3rd and 4th grades, when we were in Martinsville the last time, after we had evacuated from Congo during the Independence strife in 1960, had grown beyond me in their own way, and had formed their own cliques. I no longer fit. They were the banker's daughters, the doctor's daughters and the school superintendent's daughters that I knew from church. I wore their older sisters' hand-me-down clothes to school. What was all right for eight year olds was not cool for 13 year olds. If I were out in the Congo, I would still be climbing trees to get mangoes. I had never worn pantyhose or lipstick. I did not know their language, the slang they used. I did not know their music, and yet on the way to the States for furlough, my family had just toured England, the land of the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits.
My hair was short and out of style, a childish cut that would not hold an "American" style in the damp winter air. I was at loss as to how to style it, and I knew nothing about setting gel or hairspray. My clothes were the hand-me-downs from kind people at our church, and I wondered how many of them recognized their old outfits on me everyday at school. That was one of my anxieties about school in America, being the weird kid who disappeared for three years at a time and then would come back for a year, strange and shy, and funny-looking, to sit quietly in class and suffer and survive.
But, my shoes were new. Mama always insisted on new shoes, and I was proud of them. It had been a long time since I had had a new pair of real shoes. In Africa, a pair of flip-flops for school and play and a nicer pair of sandals for church was all I had needed.
My American classmates would sit in small groups in the math classroom, talking, waiting for the bell to ring. I would walk in, alone, and timidly set my books on my desk, always on the fringes, and listen to their discussions, reluctant to join in. I had already said some "stupid" things that showed my ignorance of American culture, and was tired of explaining why their world was so alien to me.
The father of one of the boys in my class was owner of an exclusive men's clothing store downtown, and we knew Jimmy would be wearing the latest in clothing styles. He was the model, his father's walking advertisement. After Jimmy sported a new outfit or new look to school, the rest of the kids would soon be wearing the same thing.
Not long after my family's shoe shopping expedition, the topic of conversation was shoes. Aigner shoes and pocketbooks were the popular brand and style. If you didn't have Aigner loafers, you weren't with it. The kids were sitting in a circle, their feet outstretched in front of them, admiring the red-brown shine of their new Aigner loafers. "I got mine at Leggett's for $12.00," a boy said. "I got mine at Ted's for $15.00," a girl said, proud to have spent a little more at a better shop. And so it went around the circle, each kid trying to out do the other for bragging rights. I couldn't imagine spending that much money for a pair of shoes. Mama seemed so proud that she had been able to get such a good price for the shoes that she had bought for my brothers and me. Didn't these kids know anything about saving money, about stretching a dollar, about bargain hunting? My loafers, still new, looked as shiny as theirs did, even though they were not Aigners. I stretched my feet into the circle to display my new shoes, and before I could think about changing my mind, I announced proudly, "I got my shoes at the Shoe Mart for $3.50!" All eyes turned to look at me, astonished at my gaffe. Their silence was deafening before their laughter erupted.
Why are there never large holes in 8th grade math classroom floors?
By: Becky Washburn Scott, A former Presbyterian MK from Congo (Zaire)