Several of us have been keenly following the story of little Zavier Assam, banned from attending Hopefield Preparatory in Jamaica because of his hair, specifically the style in which his mother has chosen to groom it. There’s not been as much attention focused on his sister who wasn’t banned outright but told her own hair had to be worn in a more appropriate style. Words such as ‘unkempt’, ‘untidy’ and ‘wild’ have been thrown into public discourse for us to ponder their meanings. My own interest in the story is obvious. When it broke, a few tweets made a link between this very real-life controversy and the controversy to be found at the centre of the two hundred pages of fiction I just released as a new novel called Augustown.
Fiction & Faction
Indeed, there are moments in a writer’s life like this – when stories we make up in our heads suddenly come to pass, when fiction slips out of its mist (and its myth) to wear a sort of skin and become truth, or in short – when stories come to bump. My novel is the story of a little Jamaican called Kaia (the name is meant to sound like Kaya – as in Kaya Hair – wild, unkempt, untidy) and he comes face to face with the strangest of villains, a highly strung teacher – a man who in fact had only recently been Vice Principal. This Vice Principal/Teacher is that particularly officious kind of Jamaican who takes surprising zeal in the business of upholding standards, but never stops to interrogate where those standards come from. The ‘Vice Principal’ in my book, much like the Vice Principal at Hopefield Prep, takes a particular disliking to the wild and untamed hair of a little boy. This is a section from the novel:
‘Miss Garrick…’ he began again.
‘Mrs Garrick,’ she corrected him.
Mr Saint-Josephs sighed and rolled his eyes. ‘Mrs Garrick’ he said with great affectation, ‘I am here this morning in front of you to talk about the matter of decorum and good-manners and tidiness which it look to me like the students here don’t have! When I was Deputy Head Teacher in a very upstanding school in Trelawny, we made…’
‘Mr Saint-Josephs,’ she said cutting him off, ‘we have very high standards here at Augustown Primary and we will expect you as a teacher to uphold these standards. Students must always…ALWAYS… be in proper uniform. Girls in their blue tunics with white shirts, and boys in their khakis, with their shirts tucked in, and with black or brown belts.’
‘Miss Garrick,’ he boomed, ‘there is right this very minute a little boy sitting down in my classroom, and it don’t even look to me like he come to school to learn. It look to me like he come to school to sell brooms.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m not catching your meaning.’
‘Dreadlocks, Miss Garrick! Dreadlocks! Like some little dirty African from the bush, and sitting right there in front of me, so brazen with his hairstyle. No no no! I will not tolerate it. When I was Deputy Head Teacher at….’
‘What is the child’s name?’ Mrs Garrick had asked.
‘Ma’am. I never even stop to ask the boy’s name. I take one look at him and my blood pressure boil up so high that I come straight to your office.’
In my novel, little Kaia would have had, in his corner, the Principal – but when the tragedy of the book happens she is nowhere near to help. In the real-life story of Hopefield Prep and its over-zealous and over-officious Vice Principal, it doesn’t seem as if the principal or many people in the island, are in little Zavier’s corner. The controversy has, sadly but not surprisingly, divided Jamaica into two camps – and like the most unresolvable of debates, the two camps insist they are debating separate things. For one side, this is all about rules, the importance of them in building a cohesive society. For the second group, this is about race and gender, about self-hatred, and about a legacy of black inferiority that extends all the way back to slavery. Both sides seem equally flabbergasted by the blinkers being worn by their opponents.
Rules is Rules
Those who see little wrong in the Vice Principal’s actions tell us that Rules is Rules! They worry about the indiscipline we might unwittingly encourage if we teach our children that rules are disposable – that rules, whenever they are uncomfortable, don’t need to be followed. Some members of this camp are catastrophists. They see a slippery slope before them. Where does it all end? they ask, and then answer – in the general collapse of society. In lawlessness and disorder. Certainly this is the opinion of one Anthony Scott who on twitter berated those who defended the mother.
@Anthony68074232 The school have its rule, find another school
@Anthony68074232 We talk about breakdown in soc, rule is rule
@Anthony68074232 You then talk about indiscipline in society, you are the Architect of it!
The majority of those commenting on the story as reported in the online Observer seem to have similar opinions.
One ‘Horatio Ward’ commented, ‘So teachers with tattoos, children allowed to break rules as they see fit…what next teachers with face and body piercings and parents deciding what hours to send their kids to school???? Where will it end???? Discipline and decorum are just basic parts of one’s education…’
One commentator under the name ‘Free Jamaica’ followed up with: ‘I agree with you. That is why so many criminals terrorizing the nation because they think they must not follow the laws of the land.’
It may seem a tad alarmist, but perhaps some ground can be conceded here – for undoubtedly one of the important things that children learn from going to school is how to integrate into larger societal units, units larger than the family, and how to negotiate and indeed comply with broader rules that govern larger populations. Indeed, rules are extremely helpful things for children who flounder without them. We are mostly all agreed on this.
The broader assertion, however – the blanket statement that ‘rules is rules’ is much more problematic and even dangerous. One need only point out how backward our entire world would be if rules were never questioned or challenged. How much more the injustice of this world would be if we accepted the once-firm but now discarded rules that black people ought to sit in the back of the bus, or ought not go into certain restaurants, or ought not to vote. How awful a world we would live in today if women had never challenged rules that forbade them from inheriting, or from getting certain jobs, or from attending certain universities. What a horrible world this would be if our bravest heroes and heroines had simply said ‘rules is rules! d restaurant say no black people; if you don’t like it then go look a next restaurant wha allow it!’ Rules aren’t just rules. They must stand up to questioning.
Surely what the defenders of Hopefield Prep really mean to say, is that in this particular case, this particular rule about hair does not appear (to them) to be unjust in any way. To them, the rule about hair is not dissimilar to other school rules such as what uniform ought to be worn, what colour belt, what kind of shoes and socks, etc. For them, all of these are simple and unharmful rules about how students ought to present themselves. Fine. I might not agree, but I can accept this position. It seems a much healthier place from which to start a discussion rather than blindly asserting that ‘rules is rules.’
The Why of Rules
But the ‘why’ of rule is as important as the rule itself, and any just rule will stand up to interrogation. ‘Why?’ is the favourite question of the curious and precocious child.
‘Ok, Mary, it is time now for you to go to bed.’
The impatient parent might not indulge this and snap, ‘Because I said so!!’
But this does not help the child to understand the rule, only the tyranny of the parent. The child might have been more helpfully indulged, if only for a little.
‘Ok, Mary, it is time now for you to go to bed.’
‘Because it is 8 o clock and that is your bed time.’
‘Because little children need enough sleep in order to be healthy and strong. You have a long day tomorrow and Mummy doesn’t want you to be tired or else you won’t enjoy it.’
Every just rule stands up proudly like a deeply-rooted tree when it is battered by the winds of the simple question ‘why?’. Unfortunately, the rule about hair doesn’t stand up well at all.
‘Little children should not wear big afro hair styles to school. Boys should cut their hair, and little girls should pull their hair back.’
‘Because, otherwise, it does not look tidy or neat.’
‘Why?’ – Or more specifically (especially in the case of girls), why would one girl racialized as white perhaps, or Indian, or Chinese, and who has hair of exactly the same length as another black girl, and wearing it ‘out’ be seen as having hair that is ‘neater’, more ‘tidy’ or better ‘groomed’ than the black girl who similarly wears her hair out? Why? Where exactly do our ideas of neatness come from? There is the uncomfortable suggestion in all of this that black hair is only made decent when it suffers some form of restraint – when it is drawn back, pinned down, tied up, or cut off all together. Freedom has come to black people, but not to our hair.
The truth is, there is no answer to these ‘whys?’ other than a painful one. What is being policed and outlawed at Hopefield Preparatory are black ways of being, and in 2016 these are the kinds of rules that ought to be blown away by simple questions and introspection.
Rules & Race
The mere suggestion that this controversy is rooted in certain ideas about race has been summarily dismissed in many quarters. No one wants to face this. Again on the online Observer we see comments such as these:
‘dis have nutting fi do wid slavery. D skl say hair have to be neatly groomed. If not go look a next school wha allow it if u believe d bway hair fi look so.
‘Exactly! Everything them bawl out slavery.’
But such dismissals can only be so strident if we have never asked that simple ‘why’ question and then followed it to its obvious and devastating conclusion.
Still, the situation at Hopefield Prep is hardly unique. In schools right across the world we have become aware of strange and rigid rules that purport to hold up standards of neatness, grooming and general politeness, but seem to target black students in particular. The current situation at Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa has gotten much more international press. The school’s 20-page code of conduct is almost Victorian, instructing girls to be conservative and polite in all their interaction and actions. They are told the usual – not to ever eat gum while in uniform, how to sit, how to walk, how to talk in gentle tones – but once again it is the rules about hair that have caused a near international uproar. Though the word ‘afro’ is never used in the school’s policy, it is clear from its wording that kinky or nappy hair worn in its natural state is not seen as well groomed.
Or else there is the situation only last year in France where several schools outlawed what in France is known as ‘le tchip’ but in Jamaica would be known as kiss-teeth or suck-teeth. The rule had a target: African and Afro-Caribbean students in France who would show their frustration or annoyance by that famous sound which linguists describe as “velaric ingressive airstream involving closure at two points in the mouth”.
I confess I am in two minds about this particular ban. Many of the proponents of the rule were in fact French teachers who also came out of African or Afro-Caribbean cultures. They knew exactly what the sound meant and the utter disrespect on display when a student sucked his teeth at a teacher. Indeed in Jamaica, any child who dares to suck his or her teeth at an adult can expect a healthy box.
Still, I wondered if any of the other cultural ways that children might show disrespect to an adult were similarly banned. Did France ever consider banning school children from rolling their eyes for instance, or from sighing or huffing? Why are black mannerisms, ways of speech, hairstyles etc singled out as being particularly offensive, rude, wild or vulgar – things in need of rules that might temper them, or better yet, stamp them out of existence.
The truth is, the defenders of Hopefield Preparatory are right: this really is all about rules, but specifically, it is about rules that have subtly yet decidedly, targeted a particular race. Yes, this is about slavery and its long legacy. It is about a full emancipation that has been so desperately long in coming.