By Catherine Gigante-Brown
Kids are constantly being told what to do and when to do it; what to eat and how to chew (mouth closed, please!); when to go to bed; what to read... I'm a firm believer that hair should be the one thing kids have control over. Sure, it's got to be clean and not a health hazard (can you say lice?), but beyond that, the choice should be theirs.
I'll never forget my mom telling me how horrified she'd been when her mother forced her to wear childish banana curls at age 13, refusing to let her get a trendy bob. Aunt Rose flew to Mom's defense and convinced my grandmother to consent to a more stylish 'do. It made all the difference. A Brooklyn version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," but with a happy ending.
I vowed not to press that kind of coiffeur stigma onto my child.
Flash back 10 years. My 5-year-old son, David, had been lobbying for a Mohawk since the previous summer. But as a brand-new kindergartener, my husband Peter and I didn't want him to begin his school years labeled as the wild boy with the wild haircut. We hoped he would forget about it, but to David, summer meant one thing: Mohawk.
David was to be ring-bearer at his cousin's wedding. I saw the horror in the bride-to-be's face when she pictured a tuxed tyke with a savage haircut clashing with her gorgeous Vera Wang gown. We sagely decided to wait until after Vanessa and Louis tied the knot. Then it was straight to Bill Brooks' barbershop on Main Street in Rosendale.
Although he'd buzzed heads for more than 40 years, Bill confessed that he'd never done a Mohawk before. He seriously considered the task at hand, firmly gripping David's head in his palm like a golden brown coconut. My son's hair began falling away onto his shoulders and the worn linoleum.
When Bill was done, somebody else smiled back at me from the chair. Where was my angelic little son? Instead, there was a pint-sized punk rocker in his place, the tiny scar where the fetal monitor had nicked his scalp clearly visible. David had swagger. David has sass. David had a Mohawk.
At first, I didn't realize the full significance of David's Mohawk, but it quickly became clear. This seemingly small change was a mammoth one in an almost-6-year-old's life -- he finally had say over something, even if it were just his own head. For David, the freedom to decide how to wear his hair was monumental. Choosing such an unconventional style was a declaration of his individuality, which was alive and well, even as a first-grader.
Maybe it was my imagination, but I could swear that David was strutting around like a proud mini-peacock. He had always been an energetic kid with an irrepressible joie de vivre. Now he had a new haircut to compliment his unique personality.
When a tattooed biker in McDonald's gave David a thumbs-up, my boy beamed. But the rest of the world didn't seem to agree. "I'm going to smack you when I see you!" my mother-in-law said when she heard about the Mohawk.
"It's only hair," I told her. "It'll grow back."
But few seemed to understand. At the playground, parents of ringlet-topped toddlers flashed me looks of disapproval when they saw David zipping around the jungle gym. "How could you give your son a Mohawk?" one even gasped, as though I was encouraging him to play with matches.
"Why not?" I shrugged. "It's his hair."
Peter and I didn't let David get a Mohawk for the biker boys' nods or to shock soccer moms. We let him do it for himself. Long after the Mohawk was gone, one important thing would remain: the self-confidence that comes with having made an independent decision. And that tiny sliver of freedom of expression would make all the difference.
Sometimes David wore his hair spiked like a cockscomb. Others, he wore it feathery like a baby chick. He wore his Mohawk to summer camp (exchanging encouraging head chucks with another older camper who sported one, too) and even to Vacation Bible School -- no judgment there.
David's Mohawk said he was a free spirit, that he'd made an unconventional choice which he'd thought through, petitioned for and stood by. It told me that when my son grew up, he would be solid, distinctive and determined -- and would do just fine for himself. He was well on his way.
So, it was with a twinge of regret that I said farewell to the sun-kissed fringe running down the center of David's scalp when he chose to get a more traditional school haircut that autumn. During the summer of 2005, David learned to read and taught himself to swim and to ride a two-wheeler. It was also what I fondly refer to as our Mohawk Summer. There will never be another one quite like it.
Since then, David has gone long and scruffy, military-style crew cut and back to a Mohawk. There was even an unfortunate choice of a thick, brushy stripe which made Peter and me cringe, especially when David decided to keep it for his school picture. (It was secretly a relief when he had it buzzed off.) But we'll think back on his Eraserhead look in a couple of years and laugh. Hopefully.
Some like it cropped. Some like it braided, bouncy, bold, free. Some boys like it shaggy, trailing past their shoulders, some girls opt for a crew cut or bright blue highlights. And you know what? It's all good.
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