Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cheveux Redux

The Bad Hair Days

When I was in high school, longish moppy hair was in. I went to an all-boys Catholic school where one might assume hair would be tightly regulated. And it was – the rules were that hair had to be above the top of your collar in back and no sideburns below the earlobe. But there must have resided, in every breast, a burning urge to hear the words: “[insert name], Cut That Hair!!”

It is perhaps a badge of honor in parochial education to experience some form of subversion, thus every boy in my school sought ways to circumvent the hair rules. (There was one boy who sported a crew cut but I recall he was largely regarded as psychopathic).

Skirting the hair rules was usually accomplished via a sideburn-less layered matted look with hair falling into the eyes and a mullet that looked as though a machete had just hacked it at the collar line. My school was also in Memphis, Tennessee so there was an added effect in that most of the student population, almost entirely devoid of any visible ethnicity, shared this universal hair style to accompany their homogenous appearance which I’ll just call caucasianus whitebreaditis.

This presented a problem for me. Although I am of Irish and German ancestry, the hair of my youth was this unruly mass of black frizz (I won’t insult curly hair by calling it curly). There were no curls, just a sort of explosion of lustrously black kinked chaos. Think Jimi Hendrix – think of Juan Epstein. That was my hair.

Besides the visual exhibition that my hair elicited, it served as an added demarcation. I had been relocated to Memphis from New York during these high school years. And just as certain brightly colored insects warn birds of poisonous composition; my hair had an evolutionary purpose in conversation, as it served to warn my classmates that something foreign and undoubtedly suspicious would most likely be rolling off my tongue.

At the time, I should have considered napalm as this unrelenting hair grew incessantly and with a ferocity usually reserved for angry cornered jungle animals. It seemed to grow back immediately upon exiting the shop of befuddled barbers who’d just spent a toiling hour futilely trying to tame the beast.

Here in the Northeast United States, such hair is sometimes given the pseudo-affectionate name Jewfro, which could have applied, had I been Jewish. [In fact, we did have one Jewish kid in my school: Arkin was his name. Yet he shared the omnipresent, fashionably acceptable blond faux-mullet that all the other students had. He even had a Southern accent, for Christ’s sake. I remember staring at him in disbelief, wondering why I was to suffer alone].

Below this expansive noir-sponge on my head, my generally odd appearance was further challenged by a body consisting of a near-six foot frame that only weighed 120 pounds. My grades weren’t great and pretty Southern girls generally likened me to a mentally ill public transport patron who finds himself deprecatingly shunned by the general populace. I feared that I might be headed for a lonely existence marked by the dual accomplishments of avoiding both baldness and obesity.

The wealth of commentary my hair inspired among my schoolmates ran within the range of benevolently ignorant to unsettlingly racist. The first question would always be (a) was I Jewish, then (b) was I Italian, and then (c) was I (part) black? Question (c) would be asked in a variety of ways, often using words that little imagination is needed to conjure. These were words I’d heard used in New York, of course. It’s just that now I was seeing people use these words without first looking over their shoulder.

Now, of course, my hair is falling out. During stressful times at work, I see laughing little shards of it descending. They fall upon the papers in front of me, as though mocking the work I do as my age appropriate deterioration ensues. I angrily sweep them aside yet there is always the faint echo – there’s more where we came from

I buzz my hair short to thwart the clown-like ludicrousness of a man who is balding in front yet retaining everywhere else. The abundant black head vegetation is gone. Like so many selective elements of youth, I wish to retrieve select components, but not all that went with them.

Questions for Discussion:
1. Why is Slimbo writing about his hair now? What’s happening in his current life that has brought about this need to explore his adolescent hair frustrations with such detail?
2. What could Slimbo have done differently to better assimilate into his new environment? Should he have done anything differently?
3. When Slimbo’s fellow students queried his background with respect to his hair, how would you have responded in his place?

1 comment:

  1. Hair and skin color are the earliest markers we use to pin each other down. How easy it is to be seen as different. How great it would have been to be able to say my name without shuttering in my childhood or feel awkward being white and curly-haired. Even today somehow I feel different, though I hardly know why it should bother me at all. What a relief to live somewhere diverse.