Well hello, grown up shoes.

It’s what I saw from the second bleacher row. I hate sitting there; I’m old and fat and sitting that long on a backless bench makes my back ache and my shoulders twitch, so I crane about and look for things to distract myself from my middle aged reality.

The shoes did the trick. They were strappy, sparkly, spectacularly stacked and on the feet of a good three quarters of the female student body Tuesday night. The girls were all dressed up for eighth grade promotion, many of them called to the stage over and over to receive awards, some tottering like toddlers trying to not trip, others striding with confidence that was only belied by their carefully angled arms, the only things that kept them upright as they walked between the stage and their seat.

I said a little prayer that my girl wouldn’t want heels that high in two years when it’s her turn to walk that walk. I said another prayer that as those sweet girls move from middle school to high school that they’ll only wear four inch heels if they really want to, not because they think they have to to be noticed or to look pretty or trendy or cool.

I tried to remember what I wore when I was that age but couldn’t. I know I dressed up for my Confirmation—white, gauzy, uncomfortable dress and kitten heels—but that was intentionally demure. Church, after all.  Did we even have an eighth grade promotion? I don’t know.

Flats.

It’s what I saw from the same second bleacher row early this morning. This time the folding chairs on the gym floor faced the bleachers instead of a stage, and the students were sixth graders rather than eighth.

It wasn’t a promotion but it was an awards ceremony, so there were skirts and pretty dresses and boys with their shirts tucked in. And flats, cowboy boots, flip flops, and sneakers. Footwear I understand.

Except for one girl in a pretty, flowy, strapless dress and strappy, sparkly, spectacularly stacked heels. As she made her way to the podium to collect her award, I saw her tiny foot shift in the obviously too-big heels. The shoes must have been at least a size or two too large, and I wondered if her mom or her sister or her aunt knew that this lovely, smiling girl raided her closet this morning before school.

In this school, the students in each grade are divided into teams. The teams have positive, corporate-team-building-monikers like “Team Confidence!” and “Team Resilience!” Each team is led by a core group of teachers: one each for math, science, social studies and language arts. Each team stays together through the academic year. I’ve loved my daughter’s teachers this year, each of them for different reasons. For the first time in a long time, I’ve wished we could keep the same teachers forever. They’re good people, the teachers that make this team.

The awards ceremony was organized by teams, so the four teachers stood at the podium, taking turns announcing a student’s name, listing his or her awards, and high fiving and/or hugging each student as he or she passed.

And so it had gone on for quite some time when this dressed up, smiling girl made her way to the podium and accepted her envelope. Then she almost tripped, and it was obvious that she was having a difficult time walking in those oversized shoes.

Without missing a beat, Mr. C.J., the language arts teacher for the team—my daughter’s team—nonchalantly offered this girl his hand and then walked with her to her seat.

That doesn’t sound like much without seeing how big the gym is, without knowing that the students had to basically walk a circle the size of half the gym to get from their seat to the podium and back again after their name was called.

No, it doesn’t sound like much. But it was everything.

I couldn’t stop the tears that welled as I watched them walk away. I saw him smiling and making small talk, probably reassuring and distracting her as they maneuvered their way back to her seat, and I sat in awe as I watched true teaching in action. I wondered if some of the boys in the folding chairs realized the example he was setting. I wondered if some of the men in the bleachers took note and resolved to be that guy to someone in their own lives, a female who needs a helping hand from a guy with a kind heart.

This time in my kids’ lives is so precious. It usually doesn’t seem that way because of the eye rolls and the snark and the refusal to brush their teeth or take a shower or change their clothes and the loud music and the know-it-all-attitude and the sometimes-slammed-doors and the disinterest in anything other than teenage everything, but it is. They’re finding their way and playing dress-up and holy hell, if there’s not a Mr. C.J. there to offer a hand and keep them upright and encourage them to keep going, they just might crash as they struggle to find their footing.

To say it terrifies me, this parenting gig of teens, is an understatement. But this morning as I shifted on the bleacher bench, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the village that surrounds my sometimes surly but beloved kids. I said a prayer that every single soul trying to fill too-big shoes has a Mr. C.J. to walk with them when they stumble, and whispered ‘thank you’ to the air around me for the reminder that I’m not doing this alone.

Erin and teachers (l-r) Mr. Riehle, Mr. C.J. (with mic) and Mrs. Hubler. Not pictured: Mrs. Taylor.

Erin and teachers (l-r) Mr. Riehle, Mr. C.J. (with mic) and Mrs. Hubler. Not pictured: Mrs. Taylor. Photo courtesy of Charles Maples.