by Aaron Browder, Open School staff
September 6, 2018
About two years ago, I decided I didn’t want to wear shoes anymore. I had read about health benefits of walking barefoot, and it seemed like a fun experiment, if not necessarily a permanent lifestyle change.
In Southern California, where it’s virtually always warm, there aren’t many practical challenges to having a no-shoes lifestyle. I now only wear shoes when I’m required to, which is at most commercial establishments. At the school where I work, The Open School, barefoot is no problem.
The main roadblock to going barefoot is a psychological one. We are used to a heavily curated, controlled environment: air conditioning, supermarkets where everything is always in stock, fast food chains that are exactly the same everywhere. When you wear shoes, you always know exactly what you will be stepping on: the inside of your shoe.
When you’re barefoot, you can watch where you’re stepping and avoid unpleasant objects. But, for the most part, you’re at the mercy of whatever terrain you happen to be walking on — whether it’s concrete or gravel, dry or wet, hot or cold. In order to go barefoot, you have to make peace with chaos, with the feeling of not being totally in control. You never know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next.
This can be a little scary, but it’s what our human brains are wired for. We are very good at adapting to changing conditions. And beyond the fear there is opportunity — the opportunity to experience the sensation of the land you’re walking on, as well as to exercise your foot muscles, your skin, and your nervous system, and make them stronger.
When you go barefoot in public, you force others to confront this chaos. Often they are not ready to confront it, and your bare feet make them uncomfortable. Many commercial establishments have rules against bare feet (although I’ve found that California is more relaxed about it than most places). It’s not that bare feet are indecent exposure (the establishments allow flip flops, which reveal exactly as much skin), or that being barefoot is dangerous (the establishments keep their floors immaculately clean). The original purpose of the barefoot restriction seems to have been to get rid of poor people. More explicitly, though, I think bare feet make people (and in particular business owners) uncomfortable, because they are a symbol of chaos.
In schools, bare feet are especially problematic because the purpose of school is to transform students according to a standard or mold. Schools apply to children what business owners apply to their businesses. They attempt to remove all variables in order to make children as predictable and standardized as possible.
A barefoot student in a school says without speaking, “I’m free and independent; I will not be controlled.” This is a problem for schools because their entire purpose is to control and modify students. Bare feet are a symbol of freedom and wildness, and freedom and wildness are the antithesis of school.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Open School is fine with students not wearing shoes, because it is fine with freedom and wildness. Far from spelling its destruction, chaos is the essence of the school. Actually, what looks like chaos from the outside — kids all going in different directions, exploring different activities, changing direction from one day to the next and defying explanation and measurement — is actually perfectly ordered from an individual perspective. Each child has a personal narrative which is internally consistent. It’s just that no two children have the same narrative.
In order to attend this school (or to send your kids to this school) you have to make peace with chaos, with the feeling of not being totally in control. When your environment is not curated and standardized, you never know what’s going to happen. This can be scary, but beyond the fear there is great opportunity — the opportunity for each child to realize their true potential.