Monday, January 16, 2012

Hair Empathy

Each morning, I run the green bristle brush through my daughter’s long, silky hair- so many fascinating colored strands weaving the singular determination of ‘brown.’ I invariably snag a small snarl and she yelps. I apologize and instantly recall the smarting sting of each catch in my childhood mornings as my own mother dragged a brush through my brambly locks. My mother with her fine, smooth hair was in uncharted territory with a child who was encumbered by frizz. Each day she’d brush until there were tears. And, each day she would marvel at how combing out my curls added so much girth to my tiny frame. On the days my mother was not merciful enough to wrangle my hair into thick braids, I walked around with a kinky Liberty Bell on my shoulders- the constant chime of self-consciousness dinging between my ears. I knew from an early age I would never be a news anchor because news anchors didn’t have bristly thatches or dreaded locks.

Those with satin hair could never understand the plight of confronting knotty coils each morning. ‘Let it grow! Let it flow!’ My family pressured. Only my hairdresser, who had known me since I was twelve, offered sympathy as she, too, had naturally curly hair which she masked with straighteners and flat irons. ‘Don’t listen to them. They do not know how fortunate they are!' I vowed that if I had a child who inherited my frizzy spirals, I would be supremely empathetic, making certain that proper smoothing creams were administered daily. Fortunately, the universe was kind to my offspring. Only my oldest with his rich copper cap received the frizzle. But, he keeps his hair short so no one would ever know. Still, my heart bled for children sentenced to a lifetime of battle with rebellious hair.

A few years ago when I was employed as a long term substitute teacher in an inner city 4th grade classroom, I was handed a class list with asterisks marked next to 6 names. ‘What does this mean?’ I asked another teacher. ‘These are students that we have identified as challenging.’ Amber*, a 9 year old with abysmal brown eyes, feral auburn hair, and indignant shoulders pressed to her ears, had a mark next to her name. So, it was no surprise that she was belligerent. She was crude- interrupting lectures to let loose sonorous belches or to announce, ‘I have to fart!’ She was unfocused- feigning narcolepsy to escape having to complete class assignments. She was angry at the world and lifted a fist to anyone who looked at her sideways. She was all scowl and gruffness. For a little thing, she acted quite burly. She was her own worst impediment-her churlishness getting in the way of her success.

Since the start of the school year, there had been an archive of substitute teachers that came and went while the beloved permanent teacher recovered from an illness. The high turnover left little opportunity for the comfort of routine. I knew Amber was testing me. During one typically uncooperative Math lesson, Amber kept her head on her desk, ‘I can’t think. My head hurts.’
            ‘Do you want to go to the nurse?’
            ‘No. It’s not really my head.’
            ‘What is it then?’
She pulled me close so she could whisper in my ear, ‘It’s my hair.’
            ‘Your hair?’
            ‘Yes. Feel.’ She brought my hand to her ponytail. I tried to run my fingers through but they were ensnared by a MASSIVE mat. My own hair ached for her.
            ‘Have you told your mom?’
            ‘She’s never around. She tells me that I am old enough to figure it out on my own. I keep trying to brush it out, but it keeps getting bigger.’

 My heart pinched at the outward sign of neglect, at the pain greater than a million snags. I knew from past attempts at trying to communicate with her mother (of fair and silken hair) that she was unresponsive, uninterested in her daughter’s ailing academic performance. It was not surprising that she would be oblivious to her child’s difficulty with grooming.

Here was the moment I had been preparing for my whole jungle haired life. But, sympathy alone would not untangle her tresses. I was at a loss. Short of cutting her hair I did not know how to help her. I sought the advice of Mrs. B, a compassionate aide. ‘Tell her to come to me tomorrow morning. She has kinky hair like my grandkids. I think I can help her.’ After Mrs. B. worked her magic for 45 minutes, most of the nest was loosened and striking auburn locks cascaded down her shoulders. ‘Feel,’ Amber instructed- lifting my hand to her head. My fingers ran through glossy strands. ‘So pretty,’ I said. ‘So soft.’

We arranged for Amber to meet discreetly with Mrs. B each morning- to work through the tangle. Each day her asperity dissipated a little and her countenance and carriage became more relaxed. She even began to joke with me (albeit inappropriately). She also decided there was no great harm in giving one’s self up to learning; and, she started to complete her work and participate in class discussions. We wouldn’t be able to fix all of the raw wounds in her spirit; but she was learning that she could let go of some of her anger while in our care.

On my last day with the class, the students lined up to say good bye. It was Amber’s uncharacteristic affection that left the biggest imprint. “Thank you,” she said as she squeezed me with all of her might. At the beginning of my assignment, I never could have imagined that all it would take to breach the fortress around this nettled girl was a little hair empathy, the ability to recognize the briery burden of a fellow knappy haired child. Sometimes it doesn’t take the whole village to raise a child- just a hamlet, understanding,  a hair brush and miracle serum.

 *Names have been changed.


  1. I love this! I have massively THICK hair that is not really curly but is far from straight. It's BIG. I also lack any talent in hair doing. Hair is a major topic at home right now. My son is doing this strange hair-do that I can't understand, and it's in his eyes. My daughter is going through a weird greasy/dry stage and my other daughter has great hair but never wants to do it. Such a good post!

    1. Ugh, my oldest son also did this strange hair thing for a year. He was in complete denial that his hair was curly; but, he wanted it to grow and kept taking his palms and trying to flatten it to his forehead. It looked ridiculous and he started to break out horribly on his forehead. He now keeps it very short but he still comes to me each morning to smooth his cowlicks ( two big swirly ones in the back). And Annalee has this long hair which I am always itching to cut. Even though it is quite lovely, she doesn't let me do anything with it (although since she became serious about soccer, she'll let me put it in a pony tail) and she looks a little bit like a wild jungle child.

  2. Amy,
    This story touched my heart!

    I find it amazing that life sometimes puts us in situations that we would never recognize as being where we need to be at that time. You were exactly where you needed to be, with the girl with tangled hair and a tangled spirit.
    Your life experience and empathy was exactly what she needed.
    I wish all teachers had the insight you had at that moment. Thank you for being who you are!
    As a teacher who works teaching music to students with disabilities, this post left me weeping. For I have had moments where I just wanted the world to see the HOPE I see in some of the beautiful children who are "labeled". For labeling sometimes promotes the exact thing we are trying to "fix."

    1. Thank you so much for your touching response.
      When I took the position, they had already exhausted all substitutes and I was still pretty green (just having come out of my first long term subbing position). But,they knew me because my kids attended the school. And I knew most of the kids in the classroom I was leading because they were in the same grade as Henry. I also knew that if my child had been in the same situation- in a classroom without the permanent teacher for over 6 weeks, I would want my kid to have someone that was familiar with the program and the faces. I knew that they kind of needed a mommy. It was the most challenging position (next to raising The Baby) that I have ever had. They were so far behind because their previous subs had not covered ANY work for 4 weeks. The subs hadn't kept any grades for the class, and I was coming in with two weeks left to the grading period plus they were two weeks away from taking the New York State English Language Arts Standardized Tests. The 6 kids who were 'challenging' just needed routine and consistency. And then, of course, they needed patience and compassion. I felt every day like I was just barely hanging on. It's weird but it was almost like being in labor- the administration kept telling me, "You're doing great. Just hang in there. It won't be much longer." Words you say to someone who is in for a long labor. What was supposed to only be 4 weeks turned into 12. And I am so happy that I had the opportunity to be there for so many reasons- that I got to learn from my students, that I got to challenge myself way beyond my comfort zone and that I learned, right before I handed in the last bit of paperwork to apply to graduate school to work toward my masters in education- that teaching, while rewarding, really wasn't for me. Kids are great, dealing with parents not so much :-)