Mary Elizabeth as a toddler in buckle shoes.  No shoelaces to tie!

Mary Elizabeth as a toddler in buckle shoes. No shoelaces to tie!


My mother (in the middle). Look at the buckles on those shoes.  Tying shoes would have been easier!

My mother (in the middle). Look at the buckles on those shoes. Tying shoes would have been easier!

Last week’s story featured Tommy, the boy in my mother’s kindergarten class who needed to rest behind the piano until he could participate without distracting or hurting others.  

In that same class was five-year-old Billy, a sweet boy who had a very different problem. He couldn’t tie his shoes.

This was over seventy years ago, long before Velcro was an essential part of children’s shoes. Being able to tie your shoes was a learned skill back then, one of the eye-hand-coordinations on a child’s check-off sheet. Schools everywhere taught “bunny ears” loop-tying, or other techniques to help kindergartners tie their shoes. Billy struggled with every attempt, but nothing worked.

One day during Story Time, Billy sat in his little chair in the circle the children formed to listen to the story. As the teacher read, Billy leaned over in his chair and began working oh-so-diligently to tie his shoes. My mother watched him try again and again, and she hoped this might be the time it all worked out. Finally, after a painfully long time, Billy looked up and proudly smiled. Success!

It was like a bad dream, Mom told me many years later. In quick succession, several things happened: Billy beamed triumphantly; the fire alarm went off; and as the other children stood and formed a line at the door as they’d practiced, Billy remained seated. His eyes got big, his lower lip trembled, he pointed down at his shoes, and his eyes filled with tears.

Billy had succeeded in tying his shoes all right…together…and around the leg of his chair. Plus, bless his little over-achieving heart, he’d even tied the shoe laces in knots.

That day, when the kindergarteners and first graders marched down the stairs to the main floor, blended with the other students and filed out the front door, the principal and her secretary checked off how long it had taken everyone to leave the building during the fire drill. One teacher and one student took longer than everyone else in the building.

My mother was last out that day, carrying Billy out the door.  He still sat in the chair, his feet still tied to the chair leg. Children giggled, staff members clapped, and Billy buried his face against my mother’s neck.

The “sole” lesson from this story is the reminder that to really understand others we need to walk a mile in their shoes…or at least down the stairs and out the door.   But the other lessons my mother taught by example over and over were these: We’re all pretty much just doing the best we can, so our first response should be helpful instead of critical. It also helps to keep a sense of humor…but never laugh while another person is sobbing against your neck.

Current baby and toddler shoes.  No buckles...but they do have shoe laces!

Current baby and toddler shoes. No buckles…but they do have shoe laces!

Or, just go bare-foot!

Or, just go bare-foot!



Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, lessons about life, memories for great-grandchildren, spending time with kids, teaching

53 responses to “SOLE LESSONS

  1. Claudia

    Such a great story and I can relate even at this age. Do I dare tell this?
    I have fallen a lot in my life and after last January’s fall off the ladder at my age, I am now petrified of falling. We were in a Christmas shop this week…the electricity went off and the day was dark so people were careful not to bump into expensive glass gifts…I could not move….I tried and could not go anywhere and was afraid I would fall. Finally I figured out my sneaker was untied and I was standing on my own lace holding myself in place. I felt like a fool. But I did not fall!

    • Marylin Warner

      Oh, Claudia, this is a great story. Thank you for your honesty and humor. Standing on your own shoelace…did you happen to know Billy from my mother’s kindergarten class? At least you didn’t tie your shoelace to a chair leg in the Christmas shop!
      And the REALLY good news is that you didn’t fall! Brava!

  2. Youir Mom was Billy’s angel that day. I wonder if he learned to tie the laces soon after that or not. Like Claudia I recently ( last night) had a loose lace incident and almost went over after standing on my own lace as I tried to walk. After 60+ years you’d think I could have mastered that.
    xxx Massive Hugs Marylin xxx Nadolig Llawen.

    • Marylin Warner

      I’d suggest you and Claudia switch to Velcro or buckle shoes, but when I fell during my walk last summer and really hurt my knee, I was wearing non-tie shoes. I stepped in a hole in a broken-up asphalt street, so the shoes weren’t the problem.
      I don’t know if Billy ever learned to tie his shoe laces after that. Maybe he decided that it was more enjoyable to have women hug him and carry him out in a chair. 😉
      Massive Hugs to you, too, David.

  3. juliabarrett

    What a beautiful funny poignant memorable story! Loved reading every single word.

    • Marylin Warner

      This one makes me laugh every time I think of it, Julia. When Mom used to tell the story, the image was so vivid of the giggling kids and clapping staff waiting out on the sidewalk, and Billy just kept his face buried against Mom’s neck.
      These are the stories I try telling her, but they just don’t register. If it weren’t for the dementia, she would laugh and laugh.

  4. Oh I just love Billy. I wonder what he went on to do in life and whether he remembers that day – I bet he does, and especially his lovely teacher who saved him😊

    • Marylin Warner

      I was doing the math, and Billy would be about 75 now, Jenny. If he ties his own shoes, thinks of his kindergarten teacher carrying him out on the chair and laughs at the memory, that would be great. Mom now thinks she’s a child on the farm. This story–and the one about Tommy behind the piano–would make her laugh if she could remember them. They’re very sweet memories.

  5. It is a lovely story. Tying laces was a rite of passage. Sometimes we rushed and were yelled at not to run with our laces undone in case we tripped and fell. The older ones graduated from laces to “slip on” shoes but my mum and dad didn’t like these. I still don’t have any velcro shoes but I am allowed slip ons now 🙂 Billy should have had some. So much easier.

    • Marylin Warner

      My grandson–my mother’s great-grandson–not only had trouble tying his shoes for the longest time, but he also frequently put them on the wrong feet! Even now, Andrew, he prides himself on running full speed with the shoelaces flapping. If his great-grandmother didn’t have dementia, she would have him sit next to her and “teach” her how to tied shoes. That’s often the way she got children to learn things, by teaching her how to do it.

  6. Many children now can´t tie shoelaces. My grandson was 12 when his older sister finally took on the job to teach him. Another wonderful story from your mother´s archives.

    • Marylin Warner

      Thank you, Darlene. Your grandson and mine both needed help from their older sisters. For boys, the eye-hand coordination must develop more slowly than for girls.

  7. I remember the excitement of mastering shoe lace tying. But that would have been an unforgettable moment for young Billy.

    • Marylin Warner

      Wouldn’t it be fun to hear his version of the story now, Gallivanta? He’s probably around 75 now, and it would be interesting to see if he remembers that day, and how it felt burying his tearful face against the neck of his kindergarten teacher!

  8. How I feel for poor Billy! I vividly remember learning to tie my shoe laces, but even more vividly the day I put my Wellington boots on the wrong feet and couldn’t get them off because they were jammed onto my little plump legs! Like Billy, though, I had a lovely teacher who came to my rescue.

    • Marylin Warner

      Oh, I love the boots-on-the-wrong-feet story! And of course a teacher coming to your rescue. For a long time we wondered if we should label our grandson’s shoes and boots with a big “L” and “R” and see if that would help. Shoes really can be a problem! 😉

  9. Beautiful story. Each one of us must’ve struggled in our initial attempts to learn to tie the shoe laces. I feel concerned for Billy. 🙂

  10. I loved this story, Marylin! I felt as though I was there with your mother and Billy, struggling to get untangled. You’re right, the world would be a better place if more people chose helpfulness over criticism. Poor Billy…I wonder if he remembers that day? I have a feeling he certainly remembers your mother.

    • Marylin Warner

      Thank you, Jill.
      And that was how she was, too, always choosing helpfulness over criticism, which resulted in surprising results with children. I really wish Mom could remember these stories of her life now. Maybe she’d have even more to share.

  11. There was another boy who struggled but couldn’t tie his shoe laces. His name was Albert Einstein.

    • Marylin Warner

      I know! And think how amazing that would be, if my mother had carried Albert Einstein on a little chair! The BIG problem, though, was that he was much older than she was, so it would have been awkward.
      But for Billy, it would have been encouraging to know that Einstein had the same problem! 🙂

  12. I always love your posts, but this one has to be one of my favorites. What a dear story – I loved the images and wow, your mother’s sensitivity at such a young age is heartwarming. Thank you for sharing! Z

    • Marylin Warner

      And thank you for the sweet comment. If there could be time travel and you could join forces with my mother–she teaching shoe-tying and behavior lessons while resting behind the piano, and you teaching them drawing and painting–think what those kindergartners could accomplish!

      • it is my loss (and everyone else’s) that we never knew the vibrant mother that you so lovingly portray — but through your posts, we know her so well. it’s also my loss that my internet has been horrid for over a year now, and one of these days i have a great marathon of reading, right here on your posts. that’s like a carrot on a stick, and i look forward to that luxury!

        thanks so much,

      • Oh, thank you for that. I appreciate your comments, and if you find other posts you especially like, I’d love to hear from you.

  13. Reading your story on a dark rainy morning warms my heart. Billy went on and invented Velcro. Happy Holidays Marilyn to you and your family.,

    • Marylin Warner

      Oh, Gerlinde, if only Billy had invented Velcro! Wouldn’t that have been something? I wonder if he would have admitted burying his teary face against the neck of his kindergarten teacher as she carried him out during a fire drill. 😉 THAT would be a story!

  14. Poor Billy! It’s a good thing he had an understanding teacher – your mother – to help him out. (I tell my students not to flee the classroom like rats escaping the Titanic.) 😉

    • Marylin Warner

      But you and I taught teenagers, Judy. If we told kindergartners not to flee the classroom like rats escaping the Titanic, think how confused they’d be. 🙂 But we were very lucky; no way we could carry any of them out for a fire drill, not unless we recruited other students to help.

  15. Oh Marylin! I just love reading your blog – you always have such powerful life lessons through inspirational messages. We all need to remember that we can’t judge anyone until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Thank you for that reminder!

    • Marylin Warner

      Oh, thank you, Robyn. As a photographer, wouldn’t you have loved to capture a shot of the kindergarten teacher carrying the little boy–his shoelaces tied to the chair–out the front door during a fire drill? Wouldn’t that be a great Norma Rockwell-type picture?
      And you’re right about the life lessons that come from my mother’s stories. They really are priceless.

  16. Among the other lessons learned from this is that truth is stranger than fiction. You just couldn’t make this one up. The only thing that would trump the ending is that Billy went on to invent Velcro as Gerlinde suggests!

    Warms the cockles of my heart, Marylin.

  17. I’ve had days like that…. when I felt like I had persevered to finally accomplish something, and it turns out I tied myself to something and knotted it all up.

    Come to think of it, I’m having a week like that right now–I’m learning how to build a web store, becoming a web developer, and I feel like my brain is going to explode. Thankfully, I too, have someone who carries my chair when I make a mess of things…

    While I’ve been glued to the computer all day, Ken knows what’s really important, and he’s been wrapping presents and putting up the tree. So in a few minutes, I can just walk away from all this frustration and unwind until Monday, when like little Billy, I’ll keep persevering until I either figure it out or invent the equivalent of velcro for e-commerce.

    Never, never, never, never, never give up. 🙂

    • Marylin Warner

      Oh, Tracy, I love the parallels you make with your life now and my mother helping Billy, especially the “…it turns out I tied myself to something and knotted it all up.”
      You, my mother and I would all agree to never, never, never, never, never give up. With shoelaces, dreams, and goals.

  18. Marylin, what a cool story. I remember my own children learning how to tie their shoes. And my son, while in preschool, would not wear socks for some reason, even in cold weather. Finally near the end of the school year, he began wearing them and his teacher was especially proud of him.
    Funny what we remember. 🙂
    xo Joanne

    • My nephew went through a period when he refused to wear socks, too, Joanne. I was glad Molly didn’t try to imitate her cousin; in Colorado on cold days she would have come home with frostbite.
      It is funny the things we remember!

  19. Diana Stevan

    Love this story about Billy. I can see why you’ve chosen to devote so many blog posts to your mother. She’s a dear heart.

    You know I never learned to tie my shoelaces properly. I think I make bunny ears, but my ties come undone so easily that I have to double knot them. I’ve been taught the right way, but I still gravitate to the old. Old habits, as they say, die hard.

    • When I first started writing this blog, the purpose was to write down all the stories I knew about my mother, so that her great-grandchildren would know the “real” person rather than just what remained after the deep dementia. But I found that when I wrote the stories I knew, I also then remembered other stories that had been long buried.
      I’m smiling at your shoelace-tying, Diana. I have a friend who is almost 70–I won’t mention her name because I’m sworn to secrecy 🙂 –but she never learned. She taught both of her own children, and then they tied her shoes “as practice” until she resorted to wearing only slip-on shoes!

  20. Jim

    Funny, funny story–a cherished memory. The question of shoes or no shoes jogs my memory about a summer when I was eight or nine. The boys in our neighborhood chose to go bare-foot. We knew how to tie shoes and had plenty of choices, but we went bare-foot to see who was toughest. It was one of those unspoken ‘manhood’ challenges that boys (and men) are known to do. As the summer wore on and the calluses formed, we were watching each other out of the corner of our eyes to see who was walking over gravel or hot asphalt with the best ho-hum gait. Then one day I stepped on a bee and it stung me in a tender place where there was no callus. I yelped, knocked the bee off, and my friend bravely pulled out the stinger with his bare fingers while my foot ached and throbbed. It was last time I ever went bare-foot, except to swim.

    • How come you never told me about this, honey? Do I know the friend who saved you?
      Okay, quid pro quo time: in 5th grade I wore sandals to school, and at recess two friends and I found some yellow jackets among trees at the edge of the playground. We bravely threw rocks at them and then I was the bravest one who stomped one. Only another yellow jacket stung my foot. It swelled up so fast that my friends had to help me back to our classroom. My mom had to come and get me; even though she pulled the stinger out, I had to go to our family doctor for medicine.

  21. Oh I would have been devastated at Billy’s age. Your mother certainly kept a cool head. I can imagine many would have panicked trying to get the boy’s laces undone.

    Lovely story.

    • Thank you, Rod.
      My dad always said to carry a pocket knife to cut, trim, and fix things. If only my mom had a pocket knife that day, she could have made fast business of the knotted shoelaces. But then she would have had to explain why she’d cut the shoelaces…plus, in education, it’s not a wise thing for a teacher to carry a knife in her pocket. At least not a kindergarten teacher…and at least not now. Weapons of any kind require an explanation and permission. 😉

  22. How wonderful that your mother didn’t countenance laughing at others in their misfortune, yet knowing when it was important to keep a good sense of humour. How little Billy must have felt so humiliated but your dear mom handled the situation so amazingly. I bet he never forgot her. That is an incredible amount of buckles on her shoes, wow! I had terrible trouble teaching my children how to tie laces as I’m left handed. Nicky is too but it was even harder trying to teach him than the other two for some reason! Needless to say, I got them shoes with velcro for as long as I could! Another wonderfully written post Marylin, you have me from the first word to the last, every time, just love the stories you tell, the wisdom you impart and all wrapped up in your great sense of fun, humour and wit. Thank you 🙂

  23. Thank you, Sherri. Your comments always mean so much and reveal how the same topic affects your life. My grandson had a horrible time tying his shoes…and it was almost as difficult to get him to put them on the right feet first! I wished my mom’s dementia would fade so she could teach him; she had such a gentle and patient and often funny way of teaching children to do things they didn’t think they could do.

  24. What a lovely story! I bet Billy loved your mom dearly.
    I can only imagine the giggles from the other children!
    Lovely message…we are all doing the best we can.

    • Thank goodness that kindergartners–and their teachers–usually take things in stride and bounce back. I hope little Billy grew up to remember this event with the tied shoelaces and being carried out by his teacher and think of it with great affection and humor.

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