The Lesson of the Cool White Socks

A life lesson in two parts

Part I

There was a fellow in my fifth grade class, John, who loved to make me the butt of any joke. He would be critical and joking about everything you did or said or didn’t do or didn’t say. I was unprepared for this, this constant barrage. It really was exhausting. When I was 10 years old, I spent very little time thinking about what I would wear. I would reach into the closet and reach into the drawer and mix-and-match without a thought. This meant that some days, I was wearing white socks with my school shoes (you know, back in the day when there were such things).

One day John noticed. He expressed, in typical mocking style, “Hey, Vinny! Why you wearing cool white socks?” He had a laugh and so did the claque of jokers who surrounded him. After that, I started paying more attention to these socks on my feet. I stopped wearing white socks and started wearing blue socks. Problem solved. I thought.

One day, he noticed the blue socks. He said, “Hey, Vinny! Why aren’t you wearing your cool white socks?”
< Click here for my reaction to this question. >
I couldn’t win, I couldn’t break even, and I would be compelled to be there the next day, so I couldn’t get out of the game. School kids do a lot of mocking and being mocked, but this in particular stuck in my mind.

Part II

Years later, at 17, I drove to my friend Bob’s for house a pool party. His sister was very attractive, sitting by the pool, and no doubt every one of us boys thought to catch her eye. One fellow succeeded, but not in the way he had hoped. You see, he was a bit chunky and not at all buff, and she was teasing him about having breasts. As you can expect, he didn’t like that one bit. So when I came up in a similar state of chunk and bufflessness, he pointed me out to her as being just like he was. This ticked me off. I was gratified that she ignored me and just continued teasing him.

“Ah ha!” I said to him, with a mocking smile. “You can’t get away from her that way, because she chose you!”

No one likes being teased. I realize, looking back, that I was trying to manipulate the jokers into ignoring me by striving to be inoffensive. I told my kids the story of the cool white socks more than once, at times when they complained of being teased at school. Experience had taught me, and I hoped they would understand not to bend to that kind of pressure. Doing that wouldn’t change anything. Once someone identifies you as a target, you are a target. Capitulating just encourages such people.

I also told them the ancient Aesop’s fable, “The Old Man, the Boy, and the Donkey”:

A long time ago, one market day, an old man loaded his donkey with baskets of goods to sell. His young grandson went along to help. The grandfather put the child on the donkey and walked alongside. That was how they did it. And everything went fine until they met a group of people on the road. They laughed to see the child riding the donkey and told the old man that it was shameful how a perfectly healthy boy was riding while his old grandfather trudged in the dust. They suggested the boy should walk and the old man should ride.

So that’s what they did. And everything went fine until they met more people on the road, coming from the other direction. They criticized the old man for making his grandson walk along the hilly road and suggested he let the boy ride along with him.

So, that’s what he did. And everything went fine until they met another group of people on the road. They angrily told him that it was terrible how they had overloaded that poor donkey, making him walk with the baskets and two people on his back.

The old man stopped to think. He finally said to himself, “It’s impossible to please everyone in the world, so I’ll just have to do things my way.” So he sat the boy among the baskets, and walked to market, leading the donkey.

Here ends the lesson.


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