Didn’t Your Mama Teach You?

I have a former student who is amazing.  She stood out in my freshman class a number of years ago for her very advanced sense of voice in writing and for wisdom beyond her years when responding to literature.  When the kids wrote about their personal heroes’ journeys, she wrote about being 15 and having gone through not one, but two heart transplants by the age of 10.  She was unique in so many ways, challenging the cookie-cutter look encouraged by pop culture, wearing her clothes and her hair as she saw fit, looking at life from outside the box.

She moved between her freshman and sophomore years, but through email, Facebook, and occasional visits, we’ve kept in touch.  That’s how I found out this summer that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  With her usual (or should I say unusual) indomitable approach, she has refused to succumb to feeling sorry for herself.  She has down days, for sure—she’s human—but how many girls do you know who would face the very difficult loss of 20 inches of hair by shaving it into a Mohawk, ala The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?  But chemo is ruthless, no matter how much grit you have.  Even the Mohawk couldn’t last, so she finally shaved it all.

You can imagine my outrage to learn that, while she was at the mall with her boyfriend, a fully-grown adult man with children shouted a rude comment about her bare head, then hid behind a wall when she turned to look at him.  My first objection is this: Really, how does anyone reach adulthood unaware that a woman with no hair may well be waging a battle for her life?  How can he not know that there is a very real possibility that her hair was a difficult but necessary sacrifice?

To anyone who thinks she “should” wear a wig or a hat, I say she has no obligation to cover her head to ease your discomfort.  If you think it’s hard to see someone fighting cancer, try being the one waging the battle.  Try being her mother or the loving boyfriend at her side.

But really, it’s broader than that.  The jerk who yelled at her might well whine, “How was I supposed to know she had cancer?”  A) Maybe act like a decent human being and err on the side of compassion? B) So what?  What if she didn’t have cancer?  What if she just wanted to shave her head?  What’s it to you?  Why do people get their panties in a bunch, and worse yet, feel free to express it to perfect strangers, when they don’t know one thing about the souls of the people they judge?

I wish people who judge young people for their hair or their tattoos or their piercings could know some of the kids I have been blessed to know.  The girl you roll your eyes at because of what you deem to be a stupid tattoo of a toaster on her shoulder could, if you bothered to ask, tell you about her dear friend, a quirky, funny boy who went by the nickname of “Toaster,” who died of an overdose at a party she attended.  She could tell you about how it changed her so deeply inside that she chose to leave a visible sign of it permanently marking her shoulder.  You’d know the kid you deem a thug because of his clothes or ink has witnessed and/or experienced unspeakable loss and violence, but is working his ass off in school to rise above it.  You would look into the eyes of a girl whose brow is pierced, and see the determination there; you’d see the rings in her lips and be so proud that those lips can still smile after all she’s been through, if you had any idea.  If your response is that these kids should look “normal” if they don’t want to be judged, all I can say is your judgment is your problem, not theirs.

I teach ACE, and a big part of what I do is try to show all kinds of kids that they can succeed, and I am realistic with them.  Those with the tats, the rings, the hair know these things can all hold them back.  I understand that an employer has to consider how clients may judge his company by the looks of his employees, and the kids get that, too.  In time, they may choose a different look.  But a kid shopping at the mall is not applying for a job in your shop, and if he’s making your burger, it won’t taste any different.  He or she isn’t asking for your approval.  The girl with no hair may have cancer, or she may be figuring out who she is and what makes her unique in an overwhelming world that may have steamrolled her in ways that would give you nightmares.  Then again, she may just be having a little fun while she’s young.  When you see her, in case your mama never told you this, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

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Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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4 Responses to Didn’t Your Mama Teach You?

  1. Kim L. Short says:

    As a school teacher, you are almost certainly familiar with the sort of parents who shout derogatory comments at the mall. In fact, you stated as much in at least one of the comments of the “Virginia Tech Redux” post.

    Some other school teacher will be dealing with this man’s children.

  2. Irene says:

    Having been in the same position as this young woman, I can tell you that the loss of one’s hair is a tragedy in itself! I chose to cover my head because it was winter and chilly on bald white flesh that had never been uncovered. I even slept with a ski cap on. Yet, when I went into the hospital for my chemo, I always took off my hat to join in with those who sat beside me, getting poisoned. Nobody has the right to toss stupid comments at someone for the way they look…not now, not ever.
    I wish your former student all the best in her battle and hope you tell us how she has gone into remission and has a full head of curly hair!

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