Thursday, 19 October 2017

School Blues. An educational absurdity, and a poem by Fleur Adcock

It is twenty two years since I first read For Heidi with Blue Hair, by new Zealand poet Fleur Adcock, for a GCSE English module.  The poem, inspired by its author's niece, articulates in fluent, conversational terms the author's scarcely tempered despair at a farcical, deplorable situation.

When you dyed your hair blue, the narrator begins, you were sent home from school...

because, as the headmistress put it,
although dyed hair was not
specifically forbidden, yours
was, apart from anything else,
not done in the school colours.


I remember the sense that we were reading about a time and place removed from our own progressive era. Yet the poem was written in the 1980's, and often at that mean-spirited school one had the sense that a good half of the teachers craved a return to the good old days of enforcing uniform regulations with the trusty cane.  No doubt some would have supported the poem's headmistress, trotting out cliches about order and conformity without really knowing what they meant.  But ever since I read For Heidi with Blue Hair, I have been asking - who would think a person's hair colour could affect their, or others', academic chances?   That depriving such a person of a day's learning could enhance their education?  It is a position without any basis in fact, and it is easy to imagine the scene the poet describes at the ejected student's home:

Tears in the kitchen, telephone-calls
to school from your freedom-loving father:
'She's not a punk in her behaviour;
it's just a style.' (You wiped your eyes,
also not in a school colour.)

Nowadays, this would never happen.  Today's schools are run by enlightened professionals, in tune with the needs of teenagers to develop their own identities, too clever to hold outdated attitudes, too busy - we are constantly told - with the demands of their important work, to find the time for stressing about irrelevant issues.  Or so I believed, until I read about the case of a 12 year old pupil of a Manchester Academy, who was put in isolation this week by that establishment, whose headmistress told the Manchester Evening News, “It’s very clear in our behaviour policy that extreme hairstyles are not acceptable in school, as they aren’t in many workplaces. Everything we do in school is important to raise standards and improve outcomes and life chances for our young people and help them develop employability skills.”

I rarely believe what I read in the papers or online - but in this case the story does seem to have been confirmed by both the girl's family and the school.  Rarer yet are my strayings into social issues. I find the contemporary world so complex that it is not often I position myself squarely pro or anti anything, but something about this absurd, ridiculous, downright stupid turn of events did get my goat, and has prompted me to ponder it in the context of Fleur Adcock's poem. It also prompted me to write myself - so taken was I with the school's ingenious description of "Extreme Hairstyles."  We are living in a climate of extremities, and it is to be hoped that schools are doing their part to address the various problems of extremism in all its forms.  Religious extremism.  Political extremism.  But haircut extremism? 

Extreme Hairstyles

We must take care to protect ourselves
at all times 
from Extreme Hairstyles.

Many of them start out innocent - 
clean-cut, neat, unobtrusive 

But there's something rotten in the state
of our nation's hair. Something subversive,
leading teenagers astray.

Just today, as I tried in vain
to teach the Periodic Table,
I noticed civilized side-partings 
slowly curling out of shape,
bland Grade-Two's twisting
into Lithium-streaked dreadlocks,
Magnesium Mohicans flaring up from nowhere,
until a lab full of brash, bedeviled bonces 
burst like a volcano erupting with hair gel, 
gobbling all within its hairy blaze.

Running home, I was ambushed by walking hairstyles -
waylaid by a gang of  pugnacious perukes,
threatened by curt crew-cuts,
mugged by an enormous knife-wielding wig,
so shaken and distressed that I couldn't wait
to race inside, clamp shut the door, 
grab a pair of scissors, 
shove my head in front of the mirror,
lop off the lot and start again,
only to notice, with a shriek of giddy fright,
that my own well-mannered, regulation, proper hair
was slowly turning pink. 

 Society seems to be ensnared at present in a negative web of personalized judgements, in which assumptions are made based on appearance, and barely a day goes by without I hear somebody lamenting another's choice of clothing, to wear piercings, to have tattoos, criticisms (including those made face to face) shot through with genuine moral outrage.  People who will happily sit down and munch a butchered animal that has been tortured to death in a slaughterhouse, assume an air of ethical alarm at the sight of a slogan on a t-shirt, a choice to forego the accepted gender codes of  dress, or indeed a streak of differently coloured hair.  I do not believe schools should be encouraging this kind of prejudice, and am appalled that a teacher, let alone a headteacher, should consider it time well spent to police, on public money, the hairstyles of pupils, when their only priority should be in delivering the highest possible educational standards.   As for discouraging hairstyles which reduce employability, should the school not be leading by example? Not that long ago, people were limited in their "employability" by race or colour, yet it is inconceivable that a school should enable such injustice by paring its standards with those of discriminatory employers, and I fear that this particular head's bigotry is far more of a threat to the standards of their school than any hairstyle or appearance.  In any case, precisely which professions do the school think are barred to those who dye their hair? I have worked in retail, the NHS, Social Services, the homeless community, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, primary education, Tourist Information, libraries, as a gardener, a childminder, on market stalls, in voluntary capacities in Conservation and arts festival organizing, and never have I found my suitability for a role determined by my personal appearance. I find it impossible to believe that this headteacher would refuse to be treated by a doctor or nurse with blue hair, and in the case of professions such as Politics or Law, where a fancy hairstyle may - rightly or wrongly - be deemed unhelpful to a person's chances, those concerned are usually of a sufficient intelligence to come to this conclusion independently.  It can only be assumed that the school are referring, in their reference to the "many workplaces" where appearances are policed, to such solemn jobs as tax officers and council play clerks.  But why would any school set its sights so low as to encourage pupils to aspire to those soul-destroying, cold, completely useless areas of employment?


I believe it is the responsibility of a school, as well as to ensure high educational standards, to encourage positive attitudes among its pupils, and to dispel negative ones. I don't believe headteachers should be obsessing about hair colour.  The pupil in question had previously been bullied, and had found that her change of hair colour - on the advice of teachers at a singing club - had increased her confidence at school. Surely that should matter more than any concern for archaic prohibitions? The idea of long hair being "extreme" is utter rubbish, considering that a twelve year old's hair grows naturally long, therefore the school's only claim of extremity must rest entirely on the issue of its colour. If it is regarded as extreme for a pupil to wear streaks of blue hairspray, then presumably the Academy must also have outlawed any other evidence of the colour blue in the appearance of their pupils? This appears not to be the case, since the school uniform happens to be blue.

But, if we are to adhere to the rigid policies of this worthy institution, maybe a new reckoning should be in place - a stricter interpretation of the rules and regulations.  Why draw the line at the colour blue? If adding different colours to their appearance is so detrimental to the well-being of pupils, it makes sense to ban all colour from the school - no green, no red, no yellow, no pink - and insist that students simply turn up covered from head to toe in grey.  But why stop there?  In order to eliminate all possible offence arising from extreme appearances, the school should surely ban pupils altogether.  Shut down the school, send everybody home, and replace the teachers and pupils with custom-built, pre-programmed, black-and-white robots.  Though evidently, in the case of the headteacher, I fear that this may have already taken place.

For Heidi with Blue Hair, by Fleur Adcock

When you dyed your hair blue
(or, at least ultramarine
for the clipped sides, with a crest
of jet-black spikes on top)
you were sent home from school

because, as the headmistress put it,
although dyed hair was not
specifically forbidden, yours
was, apart from anything else,
not done in the school colours.

Tears in the kitchen, telephone-calls
to school from your freedom-loving father:
'She's not a punk in her behaviour;
it's just a style.' (You wiped your eyes,
also not in a school colour.)

'She discussed it with me first -
we checked the rules.' 'And anyway, Dad,
it cost twenty-five dollars.
Tell them it won't wash out -
not even if I wanted to try.

It would have been unfair to mention
your mother's death, but that
shimmered behind the arguments.
The school had nothing else against you;
the teachers twittered and gave in.

Next day your black friend had hers done
in grey, white and flaxen yellow -
the school colours precisely:
an act of solidarity, a witty
tease. The battle was already won

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