Miss Bacon, our gym teacher, made the announcement at the end of class that we would not have to change into our green gym suits the following day. We let out a collective “yeah!” and were excited about the news until she finished her little speech. The following morning she would check our scalps for lice. We were to wash our hair and have it squeaky clean for the inspection.
All the girls were still celebrating their anticipated freedom from the dreaded uniform. But slowly, the black girls went quiet as the news sunk in. We marched silently out of the gym but all hell broke loose when we hit the locker room.
“Ain’t that some shit?”
“Is she crazy? On a Wednesday night?”
“Lice, what she trying to say?”
“Ain’t nobody got no coodies around here!”
Miss Bacon had short shiny black hair that swung around her head every time she moved. She was of the ‘I-wash-my-hair-every-morning’ school of beauty. In fact, she often walked into ffirst-period class with still-wet hair plastered across her forehead.
This woman had no idea what it took for most black women to do their hair in those pre-Afro days. My hair was pressed with a hot comb because my mother didn’t want me putting those strong chemicals in it to relax the natural curl. So, ‘just wash your hair tonight’ translated into hours of grooming. Washing, air drying (no money for a hairdryer back then), pressing and curling—not the kind of thing you asked your mother to do for you on a weekday night after a long day of work. So I knew what the answer would be.
I was doing my homework that evening when Mom came home from work. In one motion, she dropped her bags on the kitchen table and looked in the pot to see what I had made for dinner.
“Good bless you, M’ija. Smells good. I’m starving too.”
She kissed my forehead and headed for her favorite chair. She let her weight down slowly and began removing her white shoes and stockings. I brought in her soft slippers and sat down by her. She massaged her wrinkled toes to get the cold out and the comfort in. I could see the weariness in her face as she arched her back and settled into the cushions.
“I’ve been waiting for this all day,“ she let out a sigh of relief.
“How was school, Mamita?” Even in her weariness, I could hear the honeysweet when she called me that. She reached down again to massage her swollen feet and was still rubbing her instep when I broke the news.
“Mom, can you do my hair tonight?”
“Como que do your…? Tonight? What’s gotten into you? I just got home. It’s Wednesday. You know better than…”
“I know, I know, but Miss Bacon is doing hair inspection tomorrow and she says we have to wash our hair tonight.”
She looked at me like I had grown another head. I braced myself.
“I don’t care what she’s going to do. Has she lost her mind? You have homework to do and I just got home from work. We don’t have time and I certainly don’t have the energy for all that. No way. Not tonight!”
I tried to explain but her hand whipped up, palm out, in a stop motion. I knew to shut up.
“I’m not doing your hair tonight and that’s that. She can check another day. The day she comes home from working a sixteen-hour shift, on her feet almost the whole time, that’s the day when she can tell me when and what to do with your hair.”
“We’re not discussing this anymore, Nena. I’ll press your hair over the weekend. We’ll curl it and style it and make it real pretty. But, she’ll have to wait til Monday to do her inspection. And that’s final.”
The next day, attendance was way down in the gym. A number of girls stayed home or were very late for school. I noticed most of the absentees were black girls and I kicked myself for not having thought of the same solution to the problem. But I knew I didn’t have the guts to cut out. My mom would kill me if she ever found out.
Miss Bacon stood in front of the room behind a wooden chair, a little table and a trash can beside her. She wore surgical gloves and had a box of Popsicle sticks nearby.
The girls who had come to class stood in fifteen rows, in their assigned places facing her. I stood near the back and looked around. Those rows reminded me of prison movies when the inmates are taken out to the yard for supervised exercise. I had never noticed that before. I stood near the back of the room trying to blend into the wall.
As she called each girl up, you were supposed to sit on the chair, with your back to her as she parted your hair with the sticks. The white girls and the Hispanic girls with straight hair did fine. She smiled at each and moved on to the next. But as each black girl sat in front of her, Miss Bacon made a face. Some girls had chosen styles with neat parts that didn’t require separating the hair into sections for inspection. But for the rest, it took a little more effort to part hair that had been freshly oiled and curled. I knew it had taken hours of work. But Miss Bacon was not pleased.
Finally, it was my turn and I sat down face burning. I could feel the stick on my scalp. I knew she would find two weeks worth of normal scalp secretions: dandruff, oil and perspiration. I imagined the look on her face and couldn’t wait to get it over with. The sooner I got up, the better.
I felt the first tug all the way down the back of my head to my neck.
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?” The words bounced off the tiled walls and seemed to reverberate all around me.
She punctuated each word with another tug at my hair. “Didn’t I tell you yesterday to wash your nappy head?” She was talking directly to me. Her words fell like acid over my head and shoulders and sank into me.
“Yes, but I…” My words came out small and finally just disappeared into the charged air.
I could feel all the girls’ eyes of on me. The black girls had a look of recognition when they saw the shame on my face. It wasn’t my hair but the public humiliation that shamed me. I tried to control the tears of anger that pushed up against my eyes and were threatening to gush out. I closed my eyes but tears of frustration burned my lids. In my mind’s eye I myself getting up on the chair and slapping that woman until her face broke open and everyone could see her ugliness oozing out of her. Time stretched out in the silence of the gym. The black girls fumed but held their tongues. In the back, a group of white girls laughed out loud pointing at me as they whispered. The black girls in the front turned to stare them down. I closed my eyes to them all, knowing the girls in the back would be taken care of later.
Miss Bacon’s barrage continued.
I tried again. “But my mother works and…”
“Aren’t you old enough to wash your own hair? Can’t you manage even that?”
“Yes, but…” The words choked me.
“Just get away from me,” she said as she pushed my head away from her. She flung the stick in the basket, making a great show of disgust as she snapped off her gloves.
“I don’t care what happens to any of you. Class dismissed!”
I sat in the chair, on fire, ears, throat, eyes burning. I sat with my dignity in pieces on the floor around me. Girls walked all about me picking up their books and clothing. Then they were all gone and I was the last person left in the world. I just couldn’t move. My mouth was straw dry. Time was gone.
I must have been sitting there for a long time because the light in the windows had changed when I finally felt two arms and then four wrapping around my shoulders. I looked into the familiar faces of my friends Marjorie and Dawn. I didn’t know when they had come into the gym. I never knew how they had heard about the incident. But they kneeled on either side of me and held me—tight. I let out all my misery in a river of tears that they absorbed into their sweaters as they rocked me. Neither of them said a single word the whole time. They didn’t need to.
Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s first novel, Daughters of the Stone was selected as a finalist for the prestigious 2010 PEN America Bingham Literary Award. She has won the Bronx Council for the Arts BRIO and ACE awards and their Literary Fellowship Award. Dahlma’s work is grounded in her experiences in the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in New York City. Her work is heavily influenced by West African mysticism and South American magical realism. She has recently completed her second novel, A Woman of Endurance and is working on a third, Milagros’ Story. Carisa Stories, a collection of short fiction and Writing on the Road, a collection of travel memoirs are also works in progress. For further information refer to her website at www.dahlmallanosfigueroa.com.
** Previously published in Growing Up Girl: An Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces, 2006 and When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50, 2010.