"How will I dance now?"

8 years ago
Rhys has been growing his hair. He wants to grow it long, and even though he’s currently suffering from a condition known as, in family parlance, “wide head,” and even though my fingers itch to just touch it up a little bit, to even things out, I haven’t. And I won’t.

In the realm of bodily functions and day-to-day hygiene, I make my kids do lots of things they don’t really want to do. I insist on diaper changes for Theo, a certain amount of handwashing, toothbrushing, nose wiping, fingernail cutting and the like. I’m pretty clear about daytime clothes versus pajamas, although what Rhys actually wears tends to be what he picks out

But the hair? Now that he’s no longer a recalcitrant toddler, that’s his prerogative, a line I can’t cross.

There’s just something about the idea of forcibly cutting his hair that feels wrong to me. Whether it’s the fact that all I ever wanted as a child were Cindy Brady–pigtails, the Samson overtones, the risks inherent in wielding scissors in front of an unwilling child’s face, or — just maybe — the unnecessary insult to his sense of autonomy and self-identity, it feels viscerally unacceptable.

Which is perhaps why this report of a Thunder Bay elementary school teaching assistant forcibly cutting the hair of a seven-year-old First Nations boy is so upsetting. According to reports, the child wore his hair long because it was important to his traditional dancing practice. The boy told his mother that the teaching assistant lifted him onto a stool, put the scissors to his forehead, and told him not to move. Which he didn’t, because he was too scared. Too scared.

Too fucking scared.

And then she cut his hair in front of his classmates. And then she stood him in front of a mirror and said, “Look at you now.”

What the kid looks like now, according to his mother, are the pictures of his relatives after they were given forcible haircuts at residential school. The boy is upset and ashamed, and heartbroken at the thought of what his shorn hair means for his dancing. “How will I dance now?” he asked his mother. “How will I dance?”

The teacher has been suspended, but the police and the Crown are refusing to press charges of assault. Enough said. This is the city I live in, and its inability to deal with difference — cultural, racial, gendered, religious — has implications for us all. If this boy isn’t safe, then my kids aren’t safe. No one’s are.

I wonder what happened to this kid’s hair. Probably swept into the trash. Because isn’t that how we deal with so many First Nations issues around here? If I could restore it to his head, I would. But if I had a strand of it, I would twine it round my fingers, put it (with his permission) in a locket, wear it next to my heart. Dance, baby: dance your heart out.

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