I bought myself a pair of big, ugly shoes this week.
At least I think they’re big and ugly. The middle-schooler in my house thought they were the coolest shoes his old man ever put on his feet when he talked me into buying them. As far as I can tell, the boy is one of the cool kids in his class, so he’s probably the one to ask.
Now, I know the party line: Don’t worry about what the cool kids like, just proudly go your own way.
That’s what I tell my boys.
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What they don’t need to know yet, though, is that there’s an exception to that rule — one I remembered when I asked that middle-schooler if he minded making a quick stop for sneakers at the big-box sports store with me the other night.
My son was surprisingly OK with joining me on my errand.
Not that adults can see it, but I’m pretty sure there’s something about the T-shirts, basketball shorts and sneakers he always wears that signals to other kids that he knows what passes for a sharp-dressed man these days in his school halls.
So he had plenty of opinions as soon as I mentioned going shopping, and he didn’t hold back.
For the most of the drive, he talked to me about the intricacies of tread and material and cushioning. He explained the structural weaknesses of knock-off brands and the skyrocketing resale value of the most valuable ones.
It might not sound like much of a conversation, but you have to remember this was a 12-year-old boy talking to his dad.
I loved the long, wandering conversations we had for years starting as soon as he learned to string sentences together, but they’ve been drying up lately. He’s still friendly enough to his mom and me, but he mostly wants to talk with his friends now. Totally normal, but it means I savor any time he does want to spend time talking to me.
A few months back, I spent 10 days helping out at his summer camp. It was worth it to see him having so much fun with his friends, but I didn’t get more than a handful of sentences out of him — until the final days of camp.
See, there’s an honor camping society that he’s been longing to join, but he won’t be eligible for a couple more years. They always need adult leaders, so one day during camp my son watched some of the members march me off to the woods for mysterious induction ceremonies.
When he later saw me wearing the necklace that meant I’d won a spot in this group he so badly wanted to join, it was like we’d gone back in time a few years. Suddenly, he couldn’t get enough of talking with me again. He didn’t even run off when other kids came up. Miraculously, I’d become cool enough for him to bring his friends into our conversations.
The magic only lasted a few days, but I remember how to work it when I want to spark a long talk with the boy again: Just put on something he thinks looks cool.
He’ll start out talking about the thing I’m wearing , and then it’s an easy turn into conversation about school, friends, hopes, troubles and whatever else is on a 12-year-old’s mind.
So go ahead and laugh if you spot me in flashy sneakers with ridiculous wide heels. My kid thinks they’re cool. And I know how to cast a pretty good spell with them.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.