(As a holiday gift in December 2022, Chloe, Ella & Alex provided me a gift subscription to something called Storyworth. Each week in 2023, I’m being provided a writing prompt designed to get me to reflect on some moment in my life. At the end of the year, my reflections will be printed in a bound book as a family keepsake. I have the option of editing or even selecting the prompts, as do Chloe, Ella & Alex. Here’s my fifth reflection essay, the idea of which came to me while reading an article.)
According to Julie Lumeng, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, many kids learn to tie their shoes by age six, though some aren’t comfortable with it until they’re closer to eight. And in case you need a little refresher, age six corresponds to being in first grade and age eight to third grade.
So imagine my embarrassment when I hadn’t mastered the task by fourth grade.
I really don’t know why, looking back. What I do recall is preferring slip-ons, especially a pair of cowboy boots that I loved (except for the year I was a jockey for Halloween and rather than spring for a new pair of black boots, my mom put black fabric around the outside of my cowboy boots – c’mon, mom!) so it may have simply been a matter of me not getting a lot of practice. Or it could be that as the third of three kids, someone older quickly tied my shoes for me on those rare occasions when I had to wear laces.
As it pertained to school, this wasn’t any kind of problem since I wore a pair of lace-free Hush Puppies to school. I could just slip those babies on in the morning and no one would be the wiser at my inability to tie my shoes. But in fourth grade, we had to change our shoes in the classroom before going to the gym (being the creative sort, we called the shoes we wore to the gym “gym shoes”). They, of course, had laces. I can readily recall the stress over not knowing what I was going to do when it came time to change into our gym shoes at school.
Let me pause here to encourage you to reflect on when you learned to tie your shoes and maybe even how. My hunch is that most of you don’t remember much about it other than maybe a faded memory of a mom or a dad or an older sibling saying something about wrapping the lace around a “bunny ear.” You probably learned the task without stress and your muscle memory kicked in to the point that you haven’t had to think about it since. If so, lucky you.
Not so for me. Even today, I still feel a tinge of incompetency when I tie my shoes, something that reminds me that something as insignificant as tying our shoes can be a minefield of potential trauma for a child. As kids, we so want to avoid shame and embarrassment. And ages six and eight are smack-dab in the middle of Erik Erikson’s Industry vs Inferiority stage of development. In short, this means that we want to be seen as competent and this is especially important in front of our classmates. Now overall, I was a competent fourth grader. I had the times table down cold, reading was a snap, and I received mostly C’s (for Commendable) on my report card. But doggonit, I couldn’t tie my shoes.
I recall that our desks were in rows and that our gym shoes were kept in some kind of closet on one side of the classroom. A few minutes before heading to the gym, we’d be given permission to get our gym shoes, return to our desks, and put them on. It was during these few minutes that I was afraid my incompetency would be revealed and that someone would make fun of me. As a highly sensitive kid, getting made fun of was especially torturous. Not only would I endure the embarrassment of whatever I was being teased about, my face would invariably turn bright red and someone would point that out. In other words, I got embarrassed for getting embarrassed. And this kind of embarrassment didn’t have just a doubling effect. I think it may be how I came to understand exponents.
In my row, the desk in front of mine was occupied by a girl named Susan Kline. I don’t remember what she looked like – nothing about her height compared to mine, the color of her hair or eyes, the shape of her nose – nothing. The little recollection I have is that she was a good student, like me, but otherwise she was just a girl in my class. But I remember her name, even the spelling of her last name (Kline, not Klein). And I remember Susan Kline’s name because each time we had to change into our gym shoes, she would tie mine. And eventually, over time, she taught me how to tie my shoes.
I’m not sure how this got started and why she would have even noticed that I was having trouble. I know that most of us would be sitting in our desks bent over, having pivoted to the left to change shoes. And maybe it was in this side-by-side positioning where she noticed my shoes weren’t tied, or that I kept starting over, or that I was getting stressed. However it happened (Did she offer? Did I ask?), I remember the relief of knowing my gym shoes were going to be tied and the stress that someone might see her tying mine. Is it appropriate to tell someone doing you a huge favor to please hurry up?
I also recall that when Susan Kline tied my shoes she was on the floor opposite of me; basically, we were face to face. I think most kids learn to tie their shoes while sitting in an adult’s lap, meaning they will have the same vantage point. Susan Kline being opposite of me meant that I learned to tie my shoes “backwards.” While she made the “bunny ear” with her right hand and wrapped it with the lace in her left, to mimic her I made the “bunny ear” in my left hand and wrapped it with the lace in my right. It wasn’t that long ago that someone saw me tying my shoes and told me I was doing it “left-handed.”
You know, it would make a nice ending to this story by saying that Susan Kline and I stayed in touch, that we were each other’s date to the prom, or that at some point I tracked her down to at least say thank you. Heck, maybe that’s the version of the story that Hollywood would like told. But, no, my family moved across town near the end of my fourth grade year and then less than a year later we moved from Omaha to Seattle. Susan Kline disappeared from my awareness, other than being the girl who taught me how to tie my shoes.
Still, what might Susan Kline be doing today? What kind of embarrassment has she saved other people from experiencing over these last 50 years? I wonder… A quick Google search of “Susan Kline, Omaha” doesn’t lead anywhere. Maybe, though, I should try again, this time substituting “shoe tying expert” for “Omaha.”
Wherever you are, Susan Kline, shoe-tying expert, thank you! You made the world a better place for me.