• Ginger Pennington

How Doc Martens Saved Me

I got my first pair for Christmas in 1998: metallic silver-gold combat boots whose toes peeked out from under my Jncos and whose Bouncing Souls boosted me up a full inch. What kind of combat was I participating in, you ask?

Middle school. Just two years before, with my thick, frizzy hair, teeth too big for my mouth, and an imagination that clashed with the whole notion of being "cool," I noticed that some of my friends from elementary school were treating me differently. Everything I said was suddenly the stupidest thing they'd ever heard, so I became afraid to speak. They didn't invite me to their outings, so I started to wonder what was wrong with me. My confidence died a painful death, which particularly sucked since it coincided with the time when every sixth grade boy had his own hallmark--maybe his mushroom haircut or his Shawn Kemp shoes--that drove me wild.

When I wasn't staring at the gorgeous nape some oblivious boy's neck in science class, I dove deep into my books, playing out my own versions of "Fantasy" by Mariah Carey and writing in my diary while spinning Boyz II Men on my 5-disc changer. It was rural eastern Kentucky before the Internet was an at-home staple. Cut off from the world (unless you count Boy Meets World), our community developed its own narrow version of which clothes, lingo, interests, and music were acceptable.

I'm sure middle school is this way for everyone, but I did not fit in, and a lot of times it was really lonely. By seventh grade, though, my mom let me subscribe to YM magazine (I know; she was a cool mom), so I started to see how different the outside world was from this tucked-in-T-shirt Hell I was living in. I became my middle school's singular disciple of modern fashion, music, and pop-culture, and rose from embarrassed silence into a new identity: the girl who is "different." The same ex-friends who had previously treated me like Steve Urkel were now bowing to my creative flair. Plastic bauble rings filled with flowers graced my blue-painted fingers, smiley faces and yin-yangs beamed from the baby-tee that was always a centimeter shy of touching the waist of my wide-leg jeans. I kissed a boy at the movies over the summer. I became obsessed with ska and punk music. It was eighth grade when Christmas finally brought me the shiny Doc Martens boots I had coveted in the Gadzooks store window at Knoxville's East Town Mall. With the gummy rubber souls clomping as I walked, the leather hugging my ankles, the solid curve fortifying my toes, I had reached my full power for the first time.

No longer did I lust after boys who didn't know I existed. No longer did I care that boring ex-friends thought my commentary was uncool.

I wore those Docs to my first concert: a muddy field with No Doubt and Weezer playing.

I wore them when I delivered my first Shakespearean monologue. I wore them when I fell in love with my first real boyfriend at 13, and when he and I tragically ended things in my green VW Beetle on our college campus at 18.

Those boots had only lost a little of their shine when I brought them to California with me at 24. But as I incorporated myself into life on the west coast, I started to feel the Docs had done their job. Thanks to them, I had overcome the expectations and limitations set upon me so long ago, and I was now in a place, figuratively and literally, where being myself was fully accepted. After 12 years, I blessed them and sent them on their way to the Santa Monica Goodwill in hopes that some other shoe-gazing youth would put them on, look up, and find herself at new heights.

Dr. Martens black boots
My brand-new second pair of Dr. Martens, San Francisco, 2013. Look at my ecstatic face in the mirror!

About four years after moving to Los Angeles, I found myself in a bit of a funk. Instead of making progress writing, or finding catharsis in front of a camera, I was spending most of my time working little jobs I hated, or looking for cheap thrills that always failed to help me self-actualize. (Read my novel for that full story.) One weekend, my then-partner and I visited San Francisco as a desperate plea to the Universe to rekindle our dead romance. We wandered the Haight, stopping in at thrift shops and bookstores. We enjoyed each other's company, but were followed by a dark shadow: the Grim Reaper of relationships, whispering to us that our time was nigh. It wasn't my partner's fault. I had lost myself; I knew this. Somewhere in the comfort of codependent Netflix-watching loop we had developed over the past few years, I had forgotten my purpose: to create, to learn, to push boundaries and dive deep into the human condition.

When I saw the Dr. Martens store, a felt a little kick inside me (maybe the Ginger of yore, urging me forward). I had no money, but with my nearly-maxxed-out credit card, I bought myself a new pair of boots---black this time---and I WAS BACK. Coincidentally or not, life changed so drastically after that weekend. I had my shit-kicking license back and man, did I begin kicking some shit. I ended dead-end relationships in those Docs and cried buckets of tears. I got my finances back on track in those Docs and found forever friends. I met my husband in those Docs, and wore them on our first date. I finished my first novel in those Docs. I started acting again in those Docs. I learned to ride a motorcycle in those Docs.

I got married in those Docs.

Bride wears Doc Martens
Like, for real. I got married in them.

Now, I wear those Docs to take my twins to the park. I know it's me, not the boots, to credit with my resilience and drive, but every time I put them on, I feel the same power that I felt when I was 13: it's part nostalgia and part timeless confidence that tells me, "You're just as vital as any of the rest of them. Go forth!" Sitting in my Interior Architecture classes, my feet adorned with my aging boots, I find myself surrounded by 19-year-olds, also wearing their Docs. (It's been long enough now that Dr. Martens are experiencing a resurgence in fashion, along with everything I wore as a teenager). These classmates of mine don't know that I'm not just part of their trend; I am a veteran of the combat of emotional growth. They are doubting themselves; they are making bad decisions about how to spend their time and who to spend it with, and then wondering why they're so tired or angry or uninspired. I want to tell them what's in store for them. I want to tell them to keep those Doc Martens laced and be ready to kick some shit. But instead I just smile and listen to their stories from the trenches.

Baby in Doc Martens
My little Aya at age 1, trying on Daddy's Doc Martens.


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