For the other kids in Mrs. Lathrop’s third grade class, the announcement was met with wholehearted enthusiasm. And rightfully so. A roller skating party? In the middle of the school day? When all the other kids would be confined to their classrooms, looking out at us with immeasurable envy, their sad little pig-noses pressed foggily on windows that might as well have been prison bars? Few things could incite such a blissfully crazed response.
But I was the hold out. For me, the prospect of a roller skating party immediately generated intense feelings of trepidation. Due to what I was convinced were huge injustices inflicted upon me by my penniless parents (who, I will concede, were penniless at least in part as a result of sending me to the private elementary school where said roller skating party was to take place), I didn’t own a pair of roller skates with which to partake in the festivities. Indeed, I had never so much as tried a pair on.
So my mother’s response, when confronted with my ardent imploration for a brand new pair of the four-wheeled shoes I now coveted so badly, wasn’t entirely unwarranted.
“But you don’t even know how to roller skate,” she said. Logical enough, perhaps, but I was a very perceptive child and knew this was her way of trying to hush my incessant pleas.
“But MOM, I’m gonna’ be the only one who doesn’t have roller skates!”
“Well, we just can’t afford them right now.” This argument was not entirely irrelevant to me. I worried constantly about money because I was fully aware that we had very little of it. I dreaded field trips because I’d have to solicit five dollars — cash — that I knew neither my mother nor my father would have available, and I would inevitably be among those two or three students who waited so long to pay up that the teacher would begin threatening us with the possibility of not going at all.
Spending field trip day relegated to the back of a different teacher’s classroom with a stack of unappealing extra credit assignments was one thing. I could find a way play it off. “Oh, my parents gave me the money weeks ago but I spent it on my new Luke Perry poster.” But this? Not having roller skates for the roller skating party would provide actual, physical evidence of the poverty I was constantly working so hard to conceal. No, this was important. This was life and death. I. Needed. Roller skates.
At long last, the night before the big event, I was fairly confident I’d convinced my mother. She informed me that she would try to leave work, hunt down the objects of my desire, and bring them to my school in time for the party. Thus fortified with hope and excitement, I hardly slept that night. I could practically feel the laces tied up tight against my ankles and the wind flowing beneath my feat. Visions of perfectly-executed figure eights danced in my head and I was certain that, despite an unmitigated lack of experience, I would take to roller skating like a duck to water. I would join my classmates and speed around the playground, arm in arm (for some reason), smiles and laughter erupting intermittently between wheeled games of Red Rover. And, most important, with my feet appropriately clad, everyone would see that I was just like them, that I had what they had, that I was no different in any way whatsoever…
But of course, like most dreams, this one was quickly and disastrously crushed.
As promised, my mother came through with the skates. Shortly before the party was set to begin, a large box was delivered to my classroom, and all eyes were on me as the package arrived at my desk. My hopeful grin was of the ear-to-ear variety. And then, as I inspected the contents of the deceptively bright and shiny and not entirely cheap-looking box, my excitement melted away and was transmuted into equal parts embarrassment and terror. I didn’t want anyone to look at me, and fortunately, given the limited attention span of the average third grader, my wish was granted.
Now I didn’t want the roller skating party to happen at all. I prayed for an act of God — an earthquake, a flash flood, a violent asthma attack, anything to keep this from happening. I couldn’t put those…those…THINGS on my feet.
What lurked inside that box was to roller skates what a unicycle is to a Porsche. These were not roller skates. These were roller skates’ inbred, troglodytic half cousins. To my horror, my mother, in a decided and I’m sure necessary effort to save money, had purchased strap-on plastic squares, an inch thick and two-thirds the size of my foot, which had small wheels that protruded ever so slightly from the bottom and which seemed determined not to spin.
My shame was easily detected. I reluctantly carried my box of disappointment out to the playground and sat on the sidelines, motionless and holding back tears, as I watched the other kids slipping into their far superior footwear. This being the early ’90s, some of them even had roller blades, a product so cool and utterly beyond my reach that I couldn’t even look at them.
“Come on, Stephanie! Why aren’t you skating?” my friends asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I…I don’t want to put these on.”
“Just put them on! Come on!”
“Well, OK, I guess.”
My face undoubtedly brighter than a cherry, I slowly attached the thick plastic sqaures to my shoes. They were purple and were designed to stay on with a series of Velcroed straps. It was impossible to get them on tight enough, and that, along with the fact that they were inexplicably smaller than my feet, meant they wouldn’t remain stationary. I was terrified, but the masses were waiting.
I stood up and, for a moment, was struck by the fleeting hope that these atrocities crudely tied to my shoes might do the trick. For a split second, I saw myself somehow turning out impeccable figure eights and joining arms with my friends, who would be so impressed with my skills that they wouldn’t even notice the hilarity going on below my ankles.
But alas, this was not the case. Trying my best to remain nonchalant and attract no further attention, I cautiously struck one foot out, and then the other, fully expecting to fall down from the speed of the wheels. But I didn’t feel at all unsteady, so I decided to try to pick up the pace. One foot out, the other foot out. One foot out, the other foot out. This wasn’t so bad. I was moving along and I wasn’t losing my balance. But then I realized why. These “skates” weren’t for skating. They were for, at best, slow-motion skootching.
One foot out, the other foot out. One foot out, the other foot out. Despite my best efforts, it was impossible to gain any kind of speed. A leisurely stroll through the park with my 76-year-old grandmother would have effected a faster clip.
“Hey, your skates are like mini skateboards!” The taunting began. “You can’t go very fast!”
This episode having taken place about twenty years ago, the details of the fallout escape me. But it was painful, to the extent that, upon recounting this vignette to my husband awhile back — the first time I had told it to anyone — I burst into a glorious flood of tears.
But now I look back on the trauma with a kind of amused nostalgia. There is of course the moral of people being more important than things. My mom did understand that the roller skates were intensely important to me, and she did her best to make me happy. And I knew that even then. On that particular occasion, her best wasn’t good enough, but I love her so much for trying.
I also learned a lesson in working hard for what you want. Undeterred in my desire for a real pair of roller skates, I started saving every dime that came my way. Once I’d managed to accumulate a tidy sum, I hinted (with great candor) to my grandmother that I only needed a mere twelve dollars in order to get the roller skates I so desperately wanted. Grandma, a sucker for my adorable nine-year-old self, promptly wrote me a check for the aforementioned difference and I was zipping around my cul-de-sac in killer pink wheels shortly thereafter. I can still feel the laces tied up tight against my ankles and the wind flowing beneath my feet. Though I never quite perfected my figure eight.
As for the fate of the strap-on roller skootchers, I tucked them away in the back of my closet and never wore them again. They were probably thrown out years later or donated to some poor girl who only got second-hand roller skootchers for Christmas. And I can’t help but think, gee, at least I wasn’t that kid.