Teaching Barefoot: Shoes are Bunkum

These foot bones were not meant to be covered in a half inch of foam rubber bullshit. One of the things I learned while living abroad is that shoes are bullshit; gods/goddess(es), God, Mother Nature, etc. didn’t intend for us to walk around with a half inch of rubber and foam on our feet, but rather, barefoot – or some reasonable facsimile thereof.

I had suspected that this might be the case some time ago; I began flirting with barefoot walking, running and Vibram Fivefingers back in 2009 (before every other hipster began sporting them, dammit). But my experience in Thailand convinced me once and for all of the baldfaced – er, rather, barefoot truth of this. But then, this didn’t really have so much to do with living in Southeast Asia as it did with the fact that I had decided to pursue teaching as a career – a career that involves being on one’s feet for hours at a time. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am not cut out for a career in teaching English as a second language, but it did lead me to this inexorable conclusion: shoes = bullshit.

This barefoot eureka moment might not have occurred, however, if I had not traveled to Southeast Asia to pursue said teaching. In Thailand it is perfectly acceptable for a teacher in a public school to remove one’s shoes. It’s not typical, but acceptable. Students are expected to remove their shoes before they enter the classroom, and of course one removes one’s shoes before entering someone’s home anywhere in Southeast Asia; it’s considered extremely rude otherwise. This is often the case with temples too, so bear that in mind if you’re Wat-hopping around Southeast Asia. It’s one of the customs that we would do well to adopt here in the West; regardless of spiritual beliefs, it does keep one’s floor cleaner.

But teachers in a Thai public school are not expected/asked to remove their shoes in the classroom. In fact none of the other Thai teachers that I observed at Anuban Suphanburi removed their shoes when teaching. When I began teaching in May of last year, I wore dress shoes that I had brought with me from the States.

Harry S. Truman's haberdashery. Before he was a politician, he was a haberdasher. And no, I didn't buy my shoes here.These were shoes that I had originally bought back when I was a full-time journalist and had to occasionally don a corporate monkey suit. A haberdasher assured me that he sold these shoes to many who were often on their feet frequently in the course of their occupations and needed comfortable shoes. In fact he had sold a pair to a police detective who came back in a week later to buy another pair because they were so comfortable, reportedly for “chasing down perps.” Right …

By the end of a week of teaching, my feet were a mess, full of aches and pains, metatarsals groaning under duress. It would take a good twenty-four hours for them to recover. After a month or so of this, there came a day when, during lunch, I took of my shoes to massage my barking howling dogs.

Barefoot Epiphany in Suphanburi: Ditching the Dress Shoes

When it came time to put them back on for an afternoon class, I just didn’t have the heart to put my shoes back on. I asked my Thai teacher if it were acceptable for me not to wear shoes in the classroom, since the students didn’t – it took a few minutes to explain that I understood that as a teacher I wasn’t expected to remove my shoes, but that I, in point of fact, wanted to remove my shoes. Once this point was conveyed, she assured me that it was perfectly acceptable for me to remove my shoes before entering the classroom – once again emphasizing that I didn’t have to.

So I taught my sixth grade English class in my stocking feet, as my mother would have called it (to this day if I venture outside wearing socks and no shoes, I hear her voice in my head: “What are you doing walking around outside in your stocking feet!?” Miss you still, Mom). It was a physical and mental epiphany. My feet were still tired and sore – I had been on my feet for three straight hours that morning with my first grade class, clad in those leather pied-a-iron maidens sold to me by Men’s Wearhouse. But they felt so much better being clad only microfiber dress socks (one of the good things sold to me by the Men’s Wearhouse haberdasher).

In fact, by the end of that hour, much of the soreness in my feet was gone, even though I had been standing or walking on them on a hardwood floor that entire time. I quickly resolved to get some “dress slippers” that I had seen a few government functionaries wearing at various offices where they house the various hoops that one must jump through as a foreigner to get a work permit. These are basically patent-leather sandals: flat soles, open heel, with a bit of leather over the toe.

Leather Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks: too hot for Southeast Asia; just right for early spring in the American MidWest.I began wearing these to work, and removing them outside the classroom whenever I set foot inside one. I had thought about wearing my Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks (pictured here on my actual right and left foot Sunday afternoon); their suede leather makes the dressy enough, and as for their goofy appearance, well, us farang look and act extremely goofy as it is, the locals probably wouldn’t take much notice of Fivefingers aside from the fact that I was a farang. Besides, even these leather Fivefingers are hot boxes – much too hot for Southeast Asia.

Anyway, within a week, all of the aches and pains disappeared from my feet; my dogs no longer howled or even barked. Over the course of the ensuring weeks, this continued to be the case. Sure, they might be a bit fatigued, especially by Friday, but there were no aches or pains – nary a growl from my now happy dogs.

Make of this what you will. Your mileage may vary; this is what has worked for me. As I say, I’ve been working toward this conclusion for some time now. This experience sealed the deal: shoes are bad for your feet; end of story.

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