Should schools prohibit inappropriate hairstyles? I use this poll question in a Freedom of Expression lesson for a diverse body of high school students. Using Nearpod, students respond yes or no and then have an opportunity to post comments on its collaborate board, sort of like post-its. The responses are honest and insightful from a classroom full of youth who are often required to adhere to policies and rules set in place at the district and school-based levels. “What is considered inappropriate?” is a question that stems from the question and there is validity in its query; because what is often considered appropriate for one may not necessarily be appropriate for another. Yet, the rules of civil discourse demand that opposing views be represented equally. The poll incites debate, critical thought, and lays the foundation for students to look closely at issues that affect them (and others) so that they are able to form valid arguments and defend them in writing.
I facilitate instruction. I don’t impose my bias or beliefs upon young people even when they ask, “what do you think?” It doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what they think and my role is to present topics and ideas that will allow them to exercise their cognitive abilities and understand the world in which they live, how policies shape decisions and more importantly how they have the power to use their voice to influence those decisions; but only if they know how.
Did high school wrestler Andrew Johnson know how to defend his right to wear his dreadlock hairstyle during his competition? Was he equipped to take a stand and deal with the aftermath of his decision and the decision of others? Did he know the rules of the game and was he prepared to deal with the consequences? I am conflicted over this news development because the 17-year-olds I know would have said GTFOH and took the L. No one would have coerced them to cut their hair. Dreads do not grow overnight. For some, it’s a lengthy process, a process that they journey upon with pride. It is not just a hairstyle. It’s identity and self-awareness. In fact, most of the people I know would not cut their dreads over an ultimatum. It would be sacrilegious.
Headlines read that Andrew was forced to cut his hair and commentary adds that the adults around him failed. Yet those adults only failed if they deprived him, up to that point, a platform to express himself and use his voice for matters that concerned him and others. He was not forced. He made a decision. Cut your hair or forfeit the game. Clearly, Andrew was more passionate about wrestling than dreadlocks. Otherwise, why would he have made that decision? He went on to win the competition, and the referee who made the call is dealing with the aftermath. Even the governor of New Jersey Phil Murphy chimed in, “No student should have to needlessly choose between his or her identity & playing sports.” I agree but Andrew did.
Black girls enter my classroom daily with big, beautiful natural hairstyles of all textures and types and mostly all gravitate toward the back of the classroom–willingly. In the back row, their afros are able to bloom freely. From the front, I observe them sitting with pride, grace and the strength of their identity. In a time where hair weaves and permanents make hair maintenance easier, they choose to embrace the beauty of their natural hair and I admire them for it. But why do they sit in the back? My theory is to avoid distracting others, to prevent a verbal altercation with another student who’d complain and retort, “your hair is in the way and I cannot see the board.” These young ladies eliminate the need to defend themselves and the right to wear their hair as they please. It’s also an indication that they are self-aware. They are aware that their choices can and will affect others. So they avoid confrontation altogether. I don’t know if prior circumstances in academic settings prompted them to sit where they do. But in my safe space classroom, I sense their air of superior hair and it is thick with confidence, like Daysi.
Daysi is my colleague and friend’s daughter who is in her senior year of high school. She is who I wished I was during my youth. Daysi is no frills gorgeous. She is self-assured, incredibly smart, talented with a radiating smile and she has a head of long, full and unabashedly beautiful natural hair. I asked her mother, “Where does Daysi normally sit in class?” According to my Daysi, she sits in the back because she doesn’t want to be bothered by anyone and no one has to ask her to move her head out of the way. Her comments support my theory. Although she is the only one in my unscientific poll, I am sure she speaks for many black girls with big hair sitting in the back of the classroom-willfully. They speak volumes, though silent, with their bushlike manes fierce, fearless and aware. Aware that nothing or no one can prohibit their right to express themselves. Their hair stance simply grooms them for further magnificence.
As my students watch me from the back, they have an advantage. They are also watching their peers who differ from them in a plethora of ways. They see what others don’t. They become more observant of people’s behaviors, mannerisms, expressed thoughts, and performance. They gain a bird’s eye view of the world in which they are poised to embark upon in which they will eventually have to make pivotal life-changing decisions that will either stall or advance their accomplishments-like Andrew- cut your hair or forfeit.
If Andrew Johnson were in my class I would ask him, “Should the National Federation of State High School Associations prohibit inappropriate hairstyles?” As this story continues to unravel, I look forward to hearing what Andrew has to say.