To say, my daughter, Haley, is independent would be an incredible understatement. But I guess that is what you get when you get inspiration for your child’s name from a comet.
In the fifth grade, Haley wanted to quit Girl Scouts because she didn’t want to “dress like everyone else.” Besides, she had really gotten into music. First, it was piano, then the bass guitar, then the guitar, and finally the bassoon.
For years she had also been obsessed with having red hair. We sprayed her hair red for Valentine’s Day, Crazy Hair Day at school, and other occasions. We dyed it red over her brown hair, making a dark henna flattering to her hazel eyes and fair skin. There is red hair in our family, after all. It suited her. It even satisfied her for a while. I thought that might get it out of her system, but nope. It just confirmed what she wanted: Bright. Red. She wanted brighter and bolder, as in fire engines and sports cars. She researched everything—she found the precise dye, watched the YouTube videos, and learned the proper technique and care. We even discussed the school dress code that stated, “No unnatural hair colors such as blue, green, or purple will be allowed at school due to the distraction it causes to learning.” It didn’t say “red,” so she wanted to go for it.
I relented, thinking, “How red can it be?”
I dyed her hair a couple of weeks before school started in September. The change was dramatic, and we each received it differently. I was stunned, my husband was speechless, and her brother was flabbergasted. And Haley was THRILLED BEYOND WORDS! Her hair came out R-E-D as A STOP SIGN IN THE BLAZING TEXAS SUN! This was a natural color for apples or cherries but not for hair.
The first thought that came to my mind was we would hear about this when school starts. How will other people react to such a drastic change? Still, my daughter said, “We will deal with it when we come to it.”
School started, and my kids packed off to middle school. After a couple of weeks, my usually bubbly child changed. She became sullen and withdrawn. She avoided eye contact with her father and me, often looking like she had been crying when I picked her up from school and went straight to her room after school. She started asking me about transferring to another school or checking out private schools.
Haley didn’t want to tell me what was going on until finally, one day, she burst as she got into the car after school. One of the administrators had given a presentation during school orientation, covering all kinds of school policies, including—you guessed it!—THE DRESS CODE!
When the subject of hair color was broached, the administrator added these words with emphasis, “…and unnaturally red hair.” While doing so, the administrator stared at Haley in front of the entire assembly and paused until the kids started staring too, poking Haley in the shoulder and calling her “Ariel” and “Ariana.” The teasing continued after assembly, in the halls, and in classrooms. Later that same week, Haley was approached by the same administrator in the cafeteria and told that she had “until Friday to do something about that hair or else face the consequences.” Then, later in the hallway, she was stopped again.
We looked at other colors, dulling it down. Still, whenever we did this, Haley cried and said it was more important to her to keep the red hair. She wanted the red hair even if it meant taking a bus to another school that did not have a bassoon program and a great music history.
I called the school to check the facts. After all, my kid is pretty dramatic—she gets that from her father’s side. No, really! The same administrator said that she hadn’t seen Haley. She had never been in the office or had any reason to see her in class, and no official reports or teacher complaints were on file. Then, I reminded her that she had talked to Haley in the cafeteria and hallway. Nope. Never. Great kid super student. I said, “She has red hair.”
Oh yes, her…. “That needs to change.”
I realized then that the administrator didn’t really know this kid, my kid. So Haley was just somebody that could easily be singled out and treated differently because of how she looked.
I decided to talk to the head principal. He was very understanding and calm. My daughter chose this school for the music program. She was a fantastic student and musician, but this was handled more like bullying than procedure. I recounted how Haley was singled out for her appearance in front of her peers. I explained that it distracted her learning and her desire to go to school each morning.
He assured me that learning was the priority at the school, that supporting kids to be the best they could be was his goal, and that he hadn’t noticed anyone with extremely red hair. Still, he would follow up, get all sides of the story, and get back to me. He emphasized that belittling kids, especially in front of their peers, was inappropriate in his eyes. He later left me a message not to worry about the color of her hair and that he hoped that Haley would have a good year.
Haley did have a good year. The administrator who had singled her out now ignored her in the hallways and assembly. However, random teachers took her out of the lunch line, talked about her in the hallway, or interrupted her classroom instructor to ask, “When is this going to be taken care of?”
My daughter, who now was back in the groove of school and music, said it was a shame that these grown-ups weren’t willing to get to know her but were eager to judge her.
Fast forward a year later, the principal of my daughter’s school pulled my husband and me aside during a pep rally, saying that he officially relaxed the dress code regarding hair color at the beginning of the year. He said there was some pushback from a few teachers. Still, he used this story to make his point:
I attended a concert at our school, and a girl with long bright red hair played a complicated woodwind instrument. Then she went to the keyboard for a few songs and played that. This kid obviously has talent. So why should I admonish her for her hair?
As he recounted what he had witnessed, I had tears. I hugged the principal right there at the middle school bonfire!
In this case, my daughter taught me the importance of being accepted for who you are instead of judged for who you should be or look like.
These are my other takeaways:
- The heart wants what the heart wants. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s the heart for you. I find that with coaching my clients. I don’t know why one person wants to sail around the world, another wants to dedicate her life to animals, and another wants to leave medicine to become a writer. The heart wants what it wants…YEAH, FOR THE HEART!
- Choose your battles. When you are a 13-year-old girl, hair isn’t everything, BUT IT SURE IS SOMETHING! To her, it was more important to express herself this way than to continue at a school with the music program and instrument that she loved dearly.
- Never take a “No” from someone who can’t give you a “Yes.” This is excellent advice for my career changers. I must have gotten 100 NO’S over the years about changing careers from teaching to counseling and from counseling to coaching.
- Surround yourself with cheerleaders. You need the truth from your doctor and your COACH. But everyone needs encouragement, people to cheer them on.
- Get advice from someone who knows. Thank God for another friend who had been through something similar with her daughter and had sought great advice.
- Being unkind is never the answer. Although particular rules are intended to keep us safe—like speed limits and stop signs—there is no room for unkindness. It solves nothing, and the only answer is LOVE.
Oh, and by the way, she still has red hair and recently changed her name from Haley to Jade. She is an independent one.