Despite our pleas to my grandmother to stretch the budget and buy us the brand-name sneakers, she wouldn't.
So we got teased — relentlessly.
Children can be so cruel. The off-brand shoes had a rubber front tip that looked like a large fish head. It was a distinguishing design that spawned a song meant to shame.
The little ditty went like this: “Fish heads, they cost a dollar ninety-nine. Fish heads, they make your feet feel fine.”
This two-verse song still haunts me. It represents a time when my siblings and I stood out for being poor.
This memory came back after reading about a British school that has banned its students from wearing expensive Canada Goose, Moncler and Pyrenex winter coats. The coat ban is part of an effort to minimize identity barriers to learning by “poverty-proofing” the school day.
“We are very concerned about the fact that our children put a lot of pressure on parents to buy them expensive coats,” head teacher Rebekah Phillips said in an interview with the Independent newspaper.
Online I saw youth prices for a Canada Goose coat from $350 to $750. One Moncler-style winter jacket for a boy cost $955. A hooded down Pyrenex coat for a 10-year-old was $489.
The students who didn't have the coats were stigmatized and often felt left out or inadequate, Phillips said.
The yawning gap between the haves and have-nots exists worldwide.
"While the bottom half of adults collectively owns less than 1 percent of total wealth, the richest decile (top 10 percent of adults) owns 85 percent of global wealth,” according to Credit Suisse Research Institute's latest Global Wealth Report.
Since 1980, inequality has grown moderately in Europe. It has increased rapidly in North America, China, India and Russia, according to research in a separate report released by the World Inequality Database.
In comparing just the United States and Western Europe, the disparity is stark.
"While the top 1 percent income share was close to 10 percent in both regions in 1980, it rose only slightly to 12 percent in 2016 in Western Europe, while it shot up to 20 percent in the United States,” the database researchers said.
They concluded that economic inequality to some extent is inevitable but that we should try to reduce the gap to prevent political, economic and social catastrophes.
But does banning designer coats or clothes achieve this goal?
I don’t think it does — not permanently, anyway.
We can't eradicate poverty shaming by taking away the right of the wealthy to buy what they want for themselves or their children.
For a period, my children attended a school that required uniforms right down to the shoes they wore. One would think this would eliminate clashes over inequality.
However, the children of means found other ways to shame their less wealthy classmates. They made fun of children who didn’t have smartphones. They compared the cars their parents drove or the homes they had. And, of course, the children interacted outside of school, so out came the brand-name shoes and clothes once they were off campus.
The fact is, the less emotionally secure among us will always find a way to humiliate their peers.
I hope the school won’t just stop at just banning the coats. Additional efforts should be made to encourage richer parents to model behavior that sends a strong message that it’s not okay to look down on folks for what they don’t have.
The researchers are right: A wide economic gap is not good for any society. We should be deeply concerned about poverty and the effect it has on children.
I'm not completely against the school ban on pricey coats. But, from experience, I also know it won't poverty-proof their students' social networks. Despite efforts to reduce the signs of income inequality, there will always be somebody who has more.
Big Mama never apologized for her inability to buy us those Jack Purcell shoes. By not being ashamed of what she could afford and not going broke trying to prevent us from being teased, my grandmother taught me a priceless life lesson.
What I had was good enough. I could feel sorry for myself for my $1.99 fish heads — or realize that what I wear is not a measure of my value as a person.