It’s Only My Hair

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an innate sense of justice and fairness. It’s obnoxious. I think the feminist mantra, “The personal is political,” got into my consciousness around the time it was coined, ca. 1969. I was five years old, living in a new-ish suburb of D.C., a working class kid with Depression-era parents who were moving into the middle class thanks to unions. I think my sense of justice came about because, almost from the time it came on TV, I was watching Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Even the slapstick taught me that life is unfair, often cruel, but can be redeemed with a  hearty laugh at yourself. I also watched All in the Family from its first airing in 1971, when I was seven. And I even watched the Maude abortion episode in its original two-part airing in 1972 when I was 8. (My mom, Lynne, explained abortion to me, as simply as possible, and while I may be sketchy on her wording, I know it came down to a hard decision that a woman who is pregnant has to make for herself.) The Vietnam War was on television for the first ten years of my life (The year I was born, 1964, was the last year of the Baby Boom), and so were hippies, sit-ins, The Smothers Brothers, and Nixon. Public Service Announcements affected me deeply, however righteous or even absurd, as did School House Rock, where I learned to sing the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution in true folk singer tradition—with repetition, so we could all sing along. The phrase “establish justice” always stood out for me. I don’t know why.

It was in first grade that I first remember putting my hands on my hips and yelling at a peer, a white boy, to tell him to behave. I don’t know where I got that voice, exactly, from inside myself, because I was a rather shy child and very nice. But when I saw things I thought were wrong, I couldn’t stop myself from voicing my outrage. Naturally, my friends loved it. It didn’t embarrass them at all. And all those shows I watched? The ones that none of my friends were allowed to watch? Well, it was my job to retell them as stories. Surely this made me popular with their parents.

When I was in 7th grade, a teacher I adored didn’t like me much, and I chalk it up to that voice of mine. The great leveler—the event that should have knocked me and my voice down a peg or ten—came in the form of a haircut my mom gave me. My mom, Lynne, really had no business with a pair of scissors in her hand (see attending photo, pre-cut story), but we just didn’t have the money for haircuts. At this time, my mom hated my wavy long hair, and thought—oh, how wrongly she believed—that cutting it short would remove the curls. Instead I turned into Orphan Annie. It was all Miss C., the teacher, could do not to snort. And in that moment, far from losing all confidence, I lost instead all vanity, which is just what any 7th grade girl needs to do if she is to forge an independent life. Braces, freckles, clown hair: “I look surprising, and I know it,” my flashing eyes said. And then I laughed. I think it was then I settled into myself, that essence. It turned me into a teacher.

Who are you essentially? When did you know it? How have you used it? Let me hear a story from you.