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The Haircut - Memoir
I am six years old. My mother is telling the hairdresser, her friend, just how short to cut it. "Right under the ears," she says. Their adult-sized heads peer down at me, and I am crying. I don't want to lose my hair, my beautiful hair that swings all the way down to my waist, but my mother is adamant. "I can't take it anymore. It has to go,” says my mother. My hair is brown, with twinkles of red in the sun. It’s not straight, not curly, something in between. After it's brushed I twirl like a princess in front of the mirror, watching it ripple in waves down my back. I love the way it spills over my shoulders, love the way it makes little curls at the ends, that is for a brief five minutes, before my mother twists it into a ponytail or braid and secures it to my scalp so tightly that my face feels stretched.
It's done. My hair is cut. I am now free from the daily torture session, and I have to admit it is nice. I like my short haircut, and wear it through first-grade, where we live in rural South Carolina and I am home-schooled because my mom doesn’t like the schools. She tells me if I go to school with the other kids, the teachers will hit me with rulers, so I am happy to stay home. Second-grade we are back in New York. I go to school again, still with my short hair. Third grade, it is curling underneath my ears, a gleaming brown page-boy, and my teacher, Mrs. Figlio, young, pretty, understanding, is my hero. She lets me read chapter books under my desk during lessons and doesn't yell at me. Fourth-grade, Mrs. Crafton. She is old, not just in age but in methods. We learn from lectures. I am bored. I can't read under my desk anymore. I finish my worksheets and sit at my desk, hands folded, waiting for the rest of the class. I can't see the board anymore, and have to sit at the front row, away from my best friend. Finally I get glasses, and the kids make fun of me, four-eyes, blind bat. I tell my mom I won't cut my hair anymore. It grows long again, and I hide behind it, my hair and my pink jacket that I won't take off.
My hair grows longer. By eighth grade it is down to my waist again, but still pulled back in ponytails and bobby pins, this time by choice. It is too snarly, looks unbrushed halfway through the day I tell myself. I put it in a ponytail, then attach extra hair scrunchies down the length of it to keep it in place. "Why is your hair always tied back?" my girlfriends ask. They tell me to bring a brush in my backpack, and just brush it when it starts to get straggly. "Everyone's hair gets messy partway through the day," they tell me. "It's okay. You don't need to worry about it." I can't explain to them how I feel naked when it's down, exposed instead of covered by it.
One day I come to school with my hair flowing down. I have pulled back only the very edges by my ears, in a pretty barrette, to show off my new dangling earrings. It has been brushed until it shines, and I am wearing my favorite cool t-shirt and jeans. I’ve given up wearing my jacket all day by now, but haven’t lost that feeling of being uncovered, naked without it. I'm walking down the hall, feeling confident for once. I must have had a bit of a swagger in my step, that inner smile that crinkles your eyes and makes you bounce a little when you walk. I sashay past a boy in my class, and he hisses as he walks past, "Think you look good today?" This is a question, not a compliment, and is followed by one of the names my classmates have invented to torment me with. There are tears in my eyes. I can barely make it down the hall to the bathroom, where I rip out my earrings and bunch up my hair in a rubber-band I've tucked in my pocket. I spend the rest of the day silent, hiding behind my desk.
High school. New group of kids. I am anonymous, and like it that way. No one knows the names the old kids used to call me, nor do they really care. I want to be different. Unrecognized. My braces are off. The glasses are gone, I'm old enough for contacts now. I cut my hair. It is shorn off at the neck again. I part it carefully, and enter the world bare-necked and bare-faced. A girl in my gym class tells me I look really pretty, that my new look really suits me. I don't feel pretty, but for the first time since third grade I feel...not ugly. I feel like I blend in, like people in the halls and on the street are no longer staring at the hideous vision I must present to them. A boy in my art class asks me out, a boy I've known since eighth grade. I think he must be making fun of me, no one wants to go out with me, and say no, but I spend the rest of the day smiling quietly to myself. It's a little smile, but it follows me on the walk home, caught against the wisps of hair that now brush against my ears. Years later, we are on a date. He tells me he tried to get me to go out with him since we met– glasses, braces, straggly ponytail and all. He's had to wait ten years, until I had enough confidence to say yes, (and for our paths to cross again). The smile that was caught in my hair all that time comes back, and I think how silly it was, all that self-loathing. We laugh, the relationship lasts a month and ends badly, of course, but it's okay. I grow my hair out, cut it short again. It has become hair, not a security blanket, or some strange testament to my inner insecurity. It turns red, blonde, black, and purple, is straightened and curled, and eventually goes back to brown, with small hints of auburn, resting on my shoulders in waves, and still turning to tangled dreadlocks after a night of restless sleeping.