Playing With Scissors

Give a kid scissors and he’s gonna cut something. It goes together like fire and flame. And the most popular thing kids cut aside from construction craft paper, string, tape, pieces of cloth for projects is their own hair. Happens every time. Give a kid a pair of scissors and sooner or later they’re gonna come up to you with a lopsided smile (or perhaps a contrite one, depending on what they’ve been told) – and a lopsided lock of hair. It might be over the eyebrow, where they can reach it and pull down – straightening it out for that first experimental cut, eyes straining to see close – or perhaps a nip off the sides or back, depending on their reach and length of hair.

My mom always kept our hair pretty much short – crewcuts and the like, fifties style: sides straight as boards, not a single hair on the neck. My dad liked to keep things even shorter – buzzing that top knot so close the barber’s vibrating razor would graze the skin on the crown of my dome – something that was to be a source of consternation later – but for the most part he was not there. When he was there he was generally working or with friends or studying at the table. We weren’t allowed to bother him there. And asking him for something was a bit like asking for elephant teeth – you might find more than you were looking for, there’d be too much to hold, and he’d get mad and grind you up in the end. So mom pretty much had control over everything: the way we dressed, what we ate, how our hair looked, whether we were ‘under control’ or not – reporting when we got a good grade or a bad one.

 

My mom was mostly responsible for our haircuts, getting out a pair of old barber shears and giving us a good once going over about every week or three or some – depending upon what mood she was in, whether dad was home (in which case she kept ours shorter) – and for sanities sake. After all, we were a couple kids playing in the dirt all the time – the first thing I would do every day was take my ‘sand shower’! This was where I would sit in the drive – the sandy end, where the ditches should lay; however, they had become filled with fine white sand in the intervening years, and were my favorite place to play sometimes. After all, imagine you this in a small child’s mind: a sandy playbox that goes on and on forever – about three or four foot wide, and probably about that deep in some of the places! What a fine place to play! At least it was in our boy’s minds . . .

 

So here I am, beginning second grade – and I’ve got some scissors. And like any kid, I’ve taken the occasional ‘whack’ at my hair with some scissors. I like the sound of it when it cuts – that somewhat gritty ripping sound hair makes when cut by steel. I still do. But I’ve been told: Don’t do that! – over and over again. So I’m keeping my head down (quite literally! – and all the better to see what I’m doing) and sitting in my bedroom on the cool-cool floor (it was slab house; that was about the only thing ‘cool’ about it when summer came . . . the cool, cool floor). I’ve got the scissors in my hand – taking small snips from the hair around the corner of my eye – when my mother comes in.

 

“MICHAEL!” she screams in a sudden furious rage. Her hands thrust down, her arms straightening so tense they’re visibly vibrating by her sides. She storms across the floor, feet pounding across the hard tiles and snatches me up. With a mean hiss she plucks the scissors from my hand . . .

“I TOLD you not to cut your HAIR! I’m gonna teach you . . .,” she dissolves into hisses and fumes, her face contorting with hatred, anger and rage, and dragging me out of there she pulls me into the kitchen – I’m resisting, I’m not so dumb I don’t know when a punishment is coming – and my bare feet are squeaking and sliding across the floor. The air conditioner puffs from the huge slot it sits in, looking at me with it blank grated eye; the cool feels good on my hot skin. She sits me in a high chair near the kitchen table. I’m afraid by now; I’m not sure what’s coming, I only know that it’s not good – and then she pulls out the old sheet she used to use when giving us haircuts.

“Now you just sit there. You don’t MOVE!” she screams, pulling the cloth tight around my throat and fastening with a safety pin. She gets out the electric clippers and begins to run it across my head . . .

And I watch, caught somewhere between terror and confusion as long strands of hair (long to me, anyway!) – go drifting down . . .

 

Later on I’m in the tub – I’m crying, I’m alone. My mom comes in. She’s shaved me bald; bald as a baboon’s ass; bald as a scalded egg. She looks at me with a mix of what seems to be grim satisfaction, hate, and perhaps just a hint of regret. I don’t know; I’m ashamed. I hang my head; I hate my new haircut and I know all the boys at school are going to make fun of me. ALL the kids are. This is a new school year, my second one – it is early in the year. This is going to make me a freak right here at the very beginning. It’s hard enough making friends outside the ‘hood. I suddenly don’t want to go there. I look up, crying:

“I don’t want to GO to school tomorrow! Please! Can I stay home?” I gesture towards my head. “Until it grows out?”

“No!,” she says sternly. “I’ll give you a hat to wear tomorrow. A stocking cap. It’s going to be cold, and you’re going to be needing one.”

“I don’t WANT to wear – ,”.

“Shut up. You’re going to school. And you can either go to school wearing a hat – or without one.” She sternly places her hands on her hips. “I don’t care.”

I cry some more, looking down. I can see teardrops splashing in the water.

“”You’re going to school tomorrow. And if the other kids make fun of you – and they will – well, remember: you shouldn’t have cut your hair.” She looks, hands on hips. “Did you learn your lesson?”

I nod. I learned it. I learned it good. After that I NEVER cut my hair again with mom’s own scissors – not until I was grown up did I touch my hair with those things . . .

 

The next day – indeed, the next few weeks! – it went as I had predicted. The kids made merciless fun – and at first the teacher insisted on me taking off my stocking cap in class – but come the second or third day she let me keep it on. Mercy and pity I suppose. And while at first the kids were like “that’s weird!” and “you look funny!” . . . their curiosity would get the best of them and they’d ask: “What happened?”

As I’d tell my story they’d get these horrified round-eyed looks, and staring at me they would start rubbing their own heads, as if to see if any of their own hair was missing. Some even confessed that they had been caught by their mom – and teacher sometimes (though those clowny child’s scissors could barely cut a thing) – doing the same sort of thing. And none had been through what I’d been through. None of them had been shaved bald as a punishment for their actions. I was the only one. And they would stare at me with wide-eyed curiosity as I’d walked by – the whispers behind the hand kind of thing – and I kept my hat on, embarrassed and ashamed, even in the ‘hood, whenever I’d set my foot outside. In a few weeks it came back off – my hair was sticking out all porcupine-like – and I ‘rejoined’ my regular classmates; the difference faded, went unnoticed – but I never forgot what it was like. In the back of my mind it’s still there: that horror, that slow sinking feeling of loss and despair as I realized what she’d done – and what I was going to be facing the next day; the judgment in all the kid’s eyes, the grownup ones – the condemnation and ‘looking funny’ kind of thing can prey on a young kid’s mind . . .

 

All the kids in the neighborhood said my mom was tough. My dad? Most just said they were scared of him. Me? It was normal – and normal to be scared and afraid and sometimes paranoid about things. I really couldn’t imagine a thing being much different . . . though I often wished (even at that time) – that I had a different set of parents, a better one – some as kind as the poor mom next door, with a laughing dad like him – or even the folks across the street with their large family, hungry appetites, and laughing easy way of giving and receiving affection towards anyone and the wonderful mom they had . . .

I don’t remember ever seeing any other kid shaved bald. Not like I was Not at any time.

Just me.

 

And sometimes I think that says something . . . about the life I’ve had.

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