I have big hair. It’s basically an entity unto itself. It is incredibly curly (think giant ringlets mixed with kinky corkscrews), thick, and can be as coarse as steel wool if I’m without conditioner for too long (the main reason I don’t go camping. My hair forbids it.).
For most of my life, I hated my hair. In middle school, the “Rachel” was all the rage (for those of you who avoided this trend, the style was named after the character “Rachel” from Friends. It was stick straight blonde hair. So straight that it was supposed to cling to the edges of your face.). I begged my mom to get me a hair straightener, and when we went out and bought a cheap one at Target, I thought my worries were over. I remember standing in the bathroom waiting for the flat iron to heat up, imagining my hair finally succumbing to my superior powers. I would have hair just like all of my friends.
Ha. My hair spat in the face of that flat iron, and I was left with a frizzy triangular mess that only got worse after P.E. class. My friends, flipping their “Rachels,” laughed at me, calling me “afro,” for the rest of the week.
After that, I basically wore my hair in a ponytail or put so much gel in it I looked like a drowned Weird Al Yankovic impersonator. I tried so many different products, each one promising to tame my hair and make it “normal.”
Every time I went to get a haircut, I would release my hair from its ponytail prison, and the stylist would undoubtedly say, “Oh my god, you have a lot of hair.”
One even visibly recoiled.
My parents weren’t much help. I have no idea where my hair came from, genetically speaking. My mom has curls, but hers are soft and bouncy and nice to her. My dad’s hair is pin straight. Therefore, they had no idea how to manage my hair. My mom would brush it, thinking that we could just “retrain” it to be more wavy. My hair lashed out and would just grow, The Blob style, the more the brush touched it.
In a moment of desperation, my mom thought bangs and layers would help. I’ll just avoid the gruesome details and say that it absolutely did not.
Throughout all of this, it was not uncommon for strangers to reach out and touch my hair, especially if I was wearing it down. “Is this real?” they’d ask. “It feels so weird.”
“Yep,”I would reply, swatting them away. I hated when they would call me out like that. Single out the Mocha Mane in front of all the Rachels around me.
What I didn’t know I wanted was someone to tell me that my hair was normal. That yes, it was different, but it was normal. Maybe even beautiful.
I thought I found that with one hairstylist. She said my hair was “fun,” and then proceeded to thin the life out of it out with shears. She said I didn’t need so much hair. Then she would straighten it. “We can fix this,” she would say, shears snipping away. Yes, my hair was “fun,” but it was also bad and needed to be changed completely to be acceptable. That was the message.
Fast forward six years and I’m at my wits’ end. I’m tired of getting my hair cut every six weeks, lest I start looking like the Oracle from The Matrix. After a few glasses of wine, I googled, “curly hair stylist, [my state].”
I don’t give a damn where this person is. There’s gotta be one, and I’m going to find them, I remember thinking, willing my laptop to find someone out there who understood this hair. I couldn’t be the only person in the United States with this kind of hair, right?
And then it happened. Google popped up with the name of a stylist. She was ten minutes from my house. I went to her Instagram, and maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was a release of follicular frustration from the last 29 years, but I cried as I looked at all the amazing pictures of women proudly displaying their curls.
“She has hair like mine!” I exclaimed to my dog, who looked unimpressed. What does he know? He has great hair.
This stylist, on her website, said that her salon did not house a flat iron, nor would it. Ever. She was strictly working with curly haired people. She mentioned that she had moved to my state and seen so many “sad curly heads,” that she knew she had found her calling.
I immediately booked an appointment and waited six weeks to see her. I was so nervous. What if she took one look and was like, “well, I’ve found my match. I can’t fix this disaster”?
My fears were unfounded as I sat in her chair and again, unleashed my hair from my tight bun.
“Who,” she started, “has been thinning this amazing head of hair?” She reached out and gently coiled a curl around her finger. “Poor curls have nothing to hold onto. They need each other.”
She then led me through a new regimen. It was three products, total (gasp!). My goal, she said, was to trap as much moisture into my hair as possible. That was the key to great curls. I remember furrowing my brow. There was no way it was that easy.
I didn’t realize that I had kept my eyes closed for most of the appointment. I was scared at what I would see when she was done. Honestly, I expected the frizzy, coarse mass to give her the middle finger and yell, “How’s that for moisture, lady? Ha ha ha!”
Instead, I was greeted with a full head of gorgeous ringlets, shiny, bouncy, and oh my god, soft for the first time. I openly gaped at the mirror.
“This,” I started. “This can’t be my hair.” I reached up and delicately pulled a ringlet around my face. “I’ve never seen it like this.”
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “And it’s always been beautiful. Just needed some hydration, girl.”
And then I cried again, no wine needed. I went home and took about three million selfies. I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t need to try and be the Rachel anymore. I had my own hair, and someone had said it was beautiful.
I don’t hate my hair anymore. I actually kind of adore it. I think it reflects me perfectly. It’s big, and out there, and not afraid to grow. I wear it down more often than up, now.
You might be wondering at this point: what on earth does this have to do with teaching?
I’m getting to that.
I was doing my standard morning greeting, and my hair had been whipped around by the 45 mph winds we had had that morning. The curls were having a heck of a day. They were big and tousled and wonderful.
“Ms. Mocha,” a student began, “do you ever straighten your hair?”
“I used to,” I replied. “It took about an hour and half each time. I don’t really do it anymore, because I really like my curls.” To make my point, I reached up and tousled them even more, which made my students giggle. “Go big or go home, right?”
The next day, one of my biracial students came into class, her hair down for the first time since September. After class, she approached me shyly.
“Ms. Mocha,” she said, “did you notice my hair?” She turned in a small, slow circle. Her curls bounced wonderfully on her shoulders.
“I did, Drew Barrymore! I really like how it looks today,” I replied (Obviously, I don’t have Drew Barrymore, but this student exudes the same kind of bubbly cheerfulness, so that is what I shall call her). “How do you feel about wearing it down?”
Drew smiled, then pointed at my mass of curls. “Go big or go home, right?”