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Grooming traditions for back to school

Getting your kid's hair cut? Pay it forward

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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Earlier this month, New Orleans barber Brandus Mercadel, who goes by Fatt da Barber, set out to break the Guinness World Record for “Most free back-to-school haircuts.” Mercadel aimed for 200 cuts over the course of two days, starting August 3. Not surprisingly, families showed up en masse for a planned 8 a.m. start in Culture Park, in nearby Gentilly, and the cuts continued the next day at his shop, in adjacent Treme.

Thank goodness for people like Mercadel, who refuse to allow conformity, practicality and efficiency to suck away the enthusiasm for the first day of school. Because many public-school leaders have control issues, dull uniforms have proliferated in the school landscape, taking away opportunities for students to express themselves through their appearance. Parents acquiesce, saying uniforms are more affordable and it gives parents one less thing to juggle in their busy schedules. But utilitarian tennis shoes, starched khakis, clip-on ties and pleated skirts don’t represent new beginnings so much as they signify compliance. Consequently, the first day of school is becoming just another day we have to work to get through — far from the sacred day it represents to many.

Notwithstanding those restrictive schools that immorally criminalize black hairstyles, hair is one of the few remaining frontiers for personal expression.

“In New Orleans, you have to have a fresh haircut,” Mercadel told the Times-Picayune. “Even if your clothes or sneakers are bummy, people can be blinded by a fresh haircut. All they will see is the fresh cut.”

Related: Slavery still shapes all of our lives, yet kids aren’t taught its history

If there is ever a day that students should look fresh, it’s the first day of school. That’s not a call for clean-shaven, pull-your-pants-up respectability. It is a call for us to continue the tradition of treating the first day of school like a revival of our communal spirit.

Many families don’t have the financial resources to stretch beyond basic needs like housing, energy and transportation. The big afros and long braids that black students often sport aren’t necessarily styles worn because of preference. Longer styles can reflect a lack of discretionary income, which certainly stifles preference. Aesthetics is a luxury that not everyone can afford. Still, cuts are integral to the first day of school tradition.

For the sake of the first day of school, all students deserve maintenance for their long dreadlocks, twists, basic fades and afros. Offering a neighbor, relative or a child of someone you work with a haircut or a pair of shoes is a small contribution to building community. With his barber’s clippers, Mercadel upholds another tradition surrounding the first day of school — black people with means filling the financial breach for the sake of children.

Some of my earliest memories of my first day in school are the days prior. Teddy, the father who raised me as a child, took my brothers and me to the local barbershop, Dave’s, to get a “low fade, even all around” for our first day at school. Like many of my peers, we went to the shop the Saturday before. Crammed in the tight space, we gave audience to engaged, boisterous men talking on the various issues of the day as we waited hours for a turn. We could have gone earlier in the week, but we needed to be as fresh as possible for the first day. The haircut didn’t top off the outfit, it was a central part of it. I distinctly remember every night before the first day of school, laying out the new outfit I planned to wear on the bed. It was a tradition that lasted for a few years, until Teddy died. But the new haircuts continued; my brothers and I walked down the street to get our own cuts.

As an adult, I now understand that many family members, biological and non-biological, made our first day special for my brothers and me. My adoptive family, whose resources were stretched thin taking care of the children they took in, couldn’t possibly have supplied us with the school clothes and supplies on their own. My biological mother, relatives and caretakers pooled their resources so we kids could have a fresh start. We were as poor on the first day as we were on the last, but we honored the first day back to school as the celebratory community event it should be.

Related: The cost of going back to school keeps rising

A haircut and a new pair of shoes may not seem like much to some, but they give kids that much more confidence. All students should have renewal manifested in — at the least — a refreshed coif. The new look benefits students and affirms our community traditions.

Last Saturday, two days before the first day of school for Washington, D.C., Public Schools, I took my 8-year-old son to the barbershop to get a much-needed trim and to participate in a generations-old tradition. However, I can’t forget the corresponding ritual of giving back.

Mercadel did not make the Guinness World Records, because “most free haircuts” is a nonexistent category. If Guinness accepts the evidence of approximately 150 haircuts, Mercadel will be a world record holder, which would certainly be an important personal accomplishment. However, what Mercadel is doing is establishing a standard for the kind of care that really keeps us together.

The value of our traditions extends well beyond the longevity of a haircut. So get a child a haircut. Buy her some shoes. Or, greet the students with high-fives at the school door on their first day, like many groups are doing. Our little acts of welcome and community — no matter how small — will make our un-calendared holiday of the first day of school sacred.

This story about the first day of school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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