I have a great many follicles. Those follicles produce a prodigious amount of hair. I was born mostly bald, but by the age of three I had thick hair down to my butt.
I have a student whose hair rivals mine in thickness but far surpasses mine in personality and texture. She reminds me of Miyazaki’s Ponyo: she is loud and expressive and loving and mischievous and her hair matches her mood. Also she loves swimming. And ham. Her hair has been long and curly-wavy as long as she’s been in my class, which has now been three years. When she was in first grade, we spent a lot of time using the quiet room and learning how to deescalate; most of our one-on-one rapport-rebuilding time involved me extracting her cochlear implant from her hair, combing her hair, and either braiding it or putting into a ponytail. Like me, she associates tress-TLC with affection, and I applied it liberally. Bus trips returning home from field trips are challenging for her (really, any transition is hard for her), and I still play with her hair to help her stay relaxed and fall asleep. When a child communicates in unique ways, you learn their language as you help them learn the language of the world.
Third-grade Ponyo hasn’t needed the quiet room in two years. Third-grade Ponyo got her hair cut this winter; it was the shortest haircut she’s had since she enrolled here in preschool. It bounced and swooshed and sproinged with every move she made. She looked lighter and brighter with each step. She practically levitated with each step and couldn’t wait to tell me all about her exciting weekend when Auntie cut her hair. Her fingers were flying with the details. KISS-FIST!! she exclaimed. My hair beautiful! My hair fun! I LOVE IT!
This morning, I arrived at the cafeteria to retrieve my class from breakfast and found Ponyo with red eyes and tears streaming down her face. Her jaw was clenched as firmly as the fist holding her hot pink hairbrush. My alarm bells went into overdrive: this was one frustrated and hurting child.
Ponyo is one of our residential students. She lives at school in the cottage during the week and goes home during the weekends. Except last weekend the ISDB Adaptive Ski and Snowboard Club went on the final weekend trip, so she hasn’t seen her family since March 8. And she’s been with her school friends since March 9. School friends become like siblings, and they bicker. And starting tomorrow is Spring Break. And transitions are hard. So bottled up inside Ponyo are a lot of feelings: she misses her mom, but she knows she’ll spend ten days home with only rudimentary communication; she’s tired of her friends, but she knows these are the most communicative people in her life right now; she’s learning not to be a bully, but her friends don’t always trust her yet; she’s exhausted and excited.
And this morning, after who knows what precipitating events, Ponyo refused to brush her hair.
When I got to the cafeteria, I got the abbreviated version of events and a to-go container of her breakfast. Ponyo refused to brush her hair and left the cottage–that is in violation of the morning rules. She was not permitted to eat until she brushed her hair. As she had not brushed her hair, she had stood in the cafeteria gripping her brush for 30 minutes while her friends ate. She refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, refused to look at any teachers or paraprofessionals in the eye, and now it was time for her 8 a.m. speech therapy session.**
Today the only power Ponyo had was the power to not brush her hair. None of this was about the hair. None of this is about the cottage aide that issued the false choice of do-hair-or-no-breakfast, either.
It’s about the system that told me that fixing her hair after a “blowout” in first grade was denying her the “natural consequences” of her behaviors. The system that labels a child “defiant” instead of “hurting.” The system that invades her personal boundaries to tell her to be respectful to adults. The system that uses or withholds food as part of the behavior management system.
That system is wrong.
It is ableist and dehumanizing to assert that my students can only respond to a reward-and-punishment style of discipline. They can handle real conversations about expectations and behavior. To insist otherwise is insulting to their intelligence and their humanity.
It compounds the dehumanization to extend consequences beyond the immediate time frame of the behavior; my student will not walk around with unkempt hair all afternoon because she misbehaved in the morning. Teachers are not bullies.
It is harmful to ignore the whole child and focus only on behaviors. All behavior is communication; we need to listen to what our kids are trying to tell us.
It is invasive and hypocritical to disrespect a child in order to teach respect. It’s like striking a child to teach him that hitting is wrong. Or shouting, Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!
It is unhealthy to use food as a bribe or reward; it is unhealthy to withhold or delay food as part of a punishment.
Ponyo felt awful all day. She cried at least half a dozen times. Was brushing her hair worth disrupting her learning today? Was it worth a recess where she refused to go outside because, Heart sad cry?
It’s a complicated issue, all wrapped up in her bouncy, swooshy KISS-FIST hair. Food as punishment. Cult of Compliance. The gendered implications of If you don’t brush your hair, it will look messy all day, as though messy hair supersedes her need to transition home smoothly, feel success in math, and read her favorite graphic novel.
**The speech therapist was amazing this morning. She always uses a calm voice and clear signing with my kids, provides clear choices and follows through. When Ponyo came back at 8:30, she was doing much better. Another aide saw us in the hallway later having some special teacher-and-Ponyo time and stopped to ask about her My Little Pony shirt, which brightened her spirits right away. There are a lot of positive supports built into our school. There’s a lot that needs work, though, too.