Differences should be valued

I'm sitting at my desk at home, looking at the collage of pictures surrounding my computer.

They range from one of my boyfriend and Grandma playing a kazoo duet on my 21st birthday to the government-issue photo of my brother in his new Navy duds, looking patriotic.

But the one that grabs my attention, and is most evocative, is one of my brother (yes, the Navy one) and me. He was in no-hair mode, after shaving off his mohawk.

So Matt has no hair and is flipping off the camera. But what brings back the most memories is my hair. It's bright pink and pretty darn short.

My hair was crew-cut length and either neon pink or white throughout most of high school. The first few times I went to visit my old school, people didn't recognize me because my hair was its natural color (blonde) and growing out.

A few people from my high school in St. Louis go to school at the university, and when I run into them, they don't recognize my name, but do remember me as "the girl with the bright pink hair."

My high school yearbooks are filled with entries like, "Have a good summer, see ya next fall and I love your unique hair."

I'm not taking you on this little trip down memory lane just for the heck of it.

I read a very sad thing from the Associated Press. A 13-year-old girl in Connecticut was suspended from eighth grade because she showed up to class with pink hair.

The Connecticut Civil Liberties Union has "warned school officials of legal consequences."

Good. I hope they win.

Whatever happened to expression? What makes hair color so important? What justifies an administrator withholding education from a 13-year-old girl just because she chooses to look a little different from her classmates?

The official reason was that the girl's hair was a "distraction."

What kind of pathetic school is it, where kids would concentrate more on someone's hair than their teacher? I don't foresee hundreds of eighth graders sitting in front of their homework at night, pondering their friend's pink hair. That idea says more about the administrators than the girl.

According to the mother, the girl will be allowed to return to school, but "only to a class for troubled students."

This is scary.

The idea that anyone who doesn't uphold the status quo and follow blindly is a deviant is absolutely frightening. If anything, adults should be encouraging individuality and creativity in students, not punishing them for having a mind, and hair color, of their own.

Are the administrators so frightened of their own shadows that they have to punish anything they don't understand? Is society on such shaky ground that anything out of the norm is abhorrent?

I was lucky. I attended a high school that encouraged and embraced diversity. My principal even asked if I would dye his beard pink. Sure I got crap from strangers at the mall and mothers would point at me and my friends and whisper to their children. "Don't turn out like them. They're bad." I always felt sad for those kids, who were being taught that outward appearances are everything.

I was extremely lucky, actually. Not only were people at school willing to look beyond the obvious, but my parents were too. My dad would occasionally give me the "Why Do You Make Yourself Ugly On Purpose" lecture, but he never tried to stop me or punish my expression. My mom would get quizzed by people at church, asking why she allowed my to walk around in public, as I was obviously a huge embarrassment. She would simply say, "It's only hair."

And she was absolutely right. It is only hair. That's what makes this Connecticut case so sad.

But this instance is more than just an issue of hair color. It's an issue of an individual's place in a conformist society. People are afraid of what they don't understand, and the superintendent and principal at Schaghticoke Middle School apparently don't understand much.

On the flipside, they probably think that they are acting for the students' benefit. Being outwardly different than everyone else in the group can be difficult, but squelching that difference is not the answer.

If the girl had lost her hair during chemotherapy, and was now bald, would she be ridiculed and labeled a "distraction," and placed in a special class for troubled kids? Probably not, because that would be a circumstance beyond her control.

What is the difference between being out of the normal, and making yourself out of the normal? Not much, the result is the same. Difference can be forgiven if it isn't voluntary, but cannot be tolerated if it's willful. This is a powerful indictment of our culture, and one that must change.

The eighth grader has vowed to keep her pink hair, and I hope she does. I hope every student everywhere does something to express themselves, and fight for their individuality.

No one else can do it for you.

Sarah Garrecht is the editor in chief of the Wildcat, and a journalism senior.

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