Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
No idea why this came seeping up from my memory bog, but I suddenly saw myself in my favorite pair of oxblood penny loafers — fifth grade, this was — and begging my mom to buy me a set of metal taps for them. You know, like tap dancers have on their shoes.
This was 1967, maybe the spring of ‘68, back when boys didn’t wear sneakers to school. Sneakers were known as “gym shoes,” and there was nothing terribly cool about them. Converse high-tops were all right. They only came in white or black, though, and you certainly couldn’t nail taps into them without getting your feet butchered.
You’re wondering, I bet, Why did this kid want tap shoes anyway?
The truth is, I hardly knew myself. Just, suddenly, a bunch of the boys got this vision (but it was probably only one boy) of a whole posse strutting down the hall all clickety clackety in our penny loafers and Florsheim wingtips. Oh, it would be awesome — even if we didn’t say awesome in those days. We said, I think, “cool,” possibly “neato,” but the meaning was the same as awesome.
Teachers would step out of our way. Girls would watch us, mesmerized, as we made our way down to the cafeteria like a pack of rattling robots. A couple of us might try a James Cagney move or two, grinning at particular girls, and kids from the lower grades would see us and go, “We wanna be like them next year!”
This is probably how any kind of clique gets started. Something unites a formerly amorphous group of individuals — a certain haircut, a pathological appreciation of Mickey Dolenz, susceptibility to xenophobic rhetoric — causing them to congeal into an ever-tightening organization. Pretty soon the uniting feature is all any of them can think about. They’re living it, breathing it, preaching it, teaching it. They’re recruiting too.
My mom took me to the local shoe store, where, behind the counter, the clerk had a swiveling rack of taps. Interesting that you’re asking about these, he remarked. Several lads have come in lately to buy them.
I looked at Mom knowingly. “See?”
She was still skeptical, but she bought a set for me anyway. Neato. There were two big taps for the heels and two small taps for the toes. That evening my dad hammered them onto my shoes, musing all the while that he didn’t know I had the dancing bug, though tap was sure a terrific thing to watch, kiddo, the old hoofers who could really dazzle and make the boards sing. Good luck with it.
I didn’t try to explain that this had nothing to do with tap dancing.
At school the next day, only about five of us had taps on our shoes. We clicked and clacked through the tiled lobby, feeling, all of a sudden, self-conscious. My friend Steve C. took a running start and slid a good fifteen feet down the hall, so we all gave that a shot, until Mr. Brown — the sixth grade teacher — came out of his classroom and told us, in his way, to cease and desist.
Our own teacher, Mrs. Elphingstone, watched us sternly as we entered her class, clickety clackety, though I thought I spied a smile hiding at the corner of her mouth. She told everyone to get settled. It was time for social studies.
Before she got started with the lesson, she said, “Steve … Robert … Kevin … Paul … Greg …. Please get up and go to the cubbies in back. Get your gym shoes out and put them on. Store your school shoes in the cubbies, then come and sit back down at your desks.”
We knew there was no point in resisting.
I wore my tap shoes home that afternoon, getting one more performance out of them, but by the time I hit our front steps, one of the toe taps had come off and disappeared, and one of the heel taps was already loose.
The next time a few of us congealed around something it was all about orange sweatshirts, and that one stuck for a while.