As a young child, nothing matters. Not color, not material, not boy or girl, not wealth. Children are kind and amiable, and everyone has a friend in one another.
When you get a little older though, many of the friends you grew up with become judges. Around the time I started at Lock Haven Catholic Middle School, seating on the school bus became assigned, though our driver never put name tags up. The tables in the lunchroom were divided, and recess ceased to be one collective game of tag.
We were not rich, and Mother always reminded me the stark difference between “need” and “want”. I didn’t come with new school supplies each year because Mother said if there was nothing wrong with the ones from my previous year, there would be no reason to purchase new ones. Many of the girls in my classes would get their hair cut at salons, where they styled it with shiny curls and bows that they wore to school the next day, and everyone would ask to touch and feel how soft it was. Mother cut my hair, because she said salons charged too much and a young girl of my age didn’t need special hair treatments. I wore my hair shoulder-length with straight bangs above my eyebrows that she cut. Sometimes I would clip the top half up in a pin, but I was never very good at it and Mother wasn’t either, and so pieces of my hair would fall forward.
We wore uniforms to school, but we were allowed to wear shoes of our choosing and when I started middle school Mother said she would buy me one new pair as a treat. My, I was excited! Most of the girls got new school shoes each year, and now I would be just like them.
I had hoped to go to the shoe store in the shopping mall, the one with all the sparkly high heels in the window, but Mother said we’d get a fine pair from the shop in town. We settled on a set of brown flats, made of glossy leather the color of the wooden table in our kitchen, with matching brown laces tied into a bow at the front. As soon as we got home I begged Mother to let me put them on, and she said I could wear them until it was time to wash up for supper. I danced around the kitchen while she cooked and she told me I looked like a ballerina, and I looked down at the bows and smiled because they were tied so perfectly.
On the first day of middle school I got on the bus feeling pretty, and very anxious to get to my first class so everyone could see my new shoes. When I got to my seat, I looked around and saw that all the other girls were wearing new shoes too, but all of theirs were a lustrous, vinyl black. That was the new style, I had seen them in the window of the shoe store in the mall by the heels. Some had polished silver buckles on the top, and some even had glitter where the toes were. I shifted my feet further under my desk and while a group of girls behind me giggled about how they matched, my elation about my new shoes quickly faded.
I heard one of the girls remark, in a whisper, that my shoes looked like the ones her mother wore. I remembered the week before when she had asked me at recess why my bangs were cut so crooked, and I felt very timid.
When we were dismissed for lunch, my teacher asked me to stay behind for a bit. She was a teacher of mine at Lock Haven Catholic Elementary and she had just moved up to the middle school when my class did. She told me she noticed that I’d gotten new shoes and she liked them very much, but she also noticed that I looked unhappy. I told her I was very excited about getting new shoes, but Mother hadn’t wanted to spend lots of money on the vinyl ones like my classmates’ mothers had, and now they thought I was ugly and I didn’t fit in with them.
What my teacher told me on that first day of middle school was something I carried with me for the remainder of my life, and still to this day. She told me about confidence, which she said was the “ability to feel beautiful without needing someone to tell you that you are.” I beamed at her; I liked the sound of that, confidence. Self confidence, she said, goes with every outfit. She said it was just like my new shoes! She reminded me again how splendid she thought they were and I asked her why she thought that, because they didn’t look like the other girls’ shoes.
Then my teacher told me the most important thing about confidence – that the moment you start comparing yourself to others is the moment you lose it.
I liked my new shoes, and as I danced out the door to the lunchroom just like I had in the kitchen when I first put them on, I realized that was all that mattered. I’ve lived a modest life, and I haven’t always had the shiniest things. But “things” are on the outside, and the secret is that what’s on the inside, my self-confidence, is as radiant as it can be.