“Your shoes are really cheap, my Mum has them.”
I stared at the 13-year-old boy as the rest of the class sucked the air out of the room in a collective gasp. “Well, your Mum has great taste,” is how I should’ve replied after a beat, nonchalant and unaffected. Don’t show them they’ve upset you, I recalled the senior lecturers telling me. They’ll descend like a pack of wolves.
I was in my first few weeks as a newly-qualified teacher, sitting on the edge of the big desk in the former English classroom of my old high school. In this classroom, I had gained top marks for my creative writing and first-person accounts of my teenage life, told with humor in a personal, self-deprecating style. Aged 13, my classmates perceived me as funny, perhaps a little weird, but certainly not someone worthy of targeted abuse.
Over ten years had passed since then, and everything had changed. I’d lost my puppy fat and gained a Bachelor’s degree and a postgraduate qualification. I’d survived my first relationship, traveled around Europe and Asia. So why was I getting taken the piss out of by teenage boys?
I’d bought the inexpensive, plastic shoes because I had yet to be paid, having only recently finished my university training. The last year had been tough. I’d lost a close family member; been in a confusing, unfulfilling relationship of sorts with a fellow trainee; suffered from confidence-shattering adult acne and the resulting low mental health associated with a course of Accutane and the legally necessary accompanying birth control.
So there I was, back in room 16, older and wiser, yet ultimately feeling the same anxieties and anticipation at the start of the new term as everyone else in the room. The teenage boy, whose name I didn’t know yet, blinked rapidly as he awaited my reply, realizing he may have overstepped a line. I looked at him properly, and registered he was probably not that popular, trying on a new persona at the beginning of the school year as if it were a new sweater. Everyone was still watching, so I smiled and suggested they work hard, then, so that one day they could get a high-paid job and afford whatever kind of shoes they wanted. Some picked up on my wry delivery and stifled a laugh.
As I returned to the textbook, I glanced up and noticed the black smudge on the wall at the back of the room, from when one of the boys in my class threw a whiteboard eraser at someone’s head all those years ago, and missed. We all thought it was hilarious at the time, and perhaps it was. I smiled to myself. Perhaps it wasn’t a case of me versus them after all. We were just at different stages of the same journey.
“Okay, let’s get started. Turn to page three.”
Photo by Frank Horvat/Conde Nast via Getty Images.