Ashley’s Lesson

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“Lice?” I asked, incredulous, as my son passed me the note from school. There was no way. We’d just taken him for a back to school haircut not two weeks ago. Surely, they would have noticed bugs and nits as they snipped away at his little Ivy League style haircut?

The letter wasn’t as bad as I thought. Liam had been found to have two nits, which, if they hatched, would quickly become a lice outbreak. We weren’t there yet. They suggested treatments with medicated shampoo, and that we check the whole family for nits and bugs. My daughter Ashley had waist-length hair. It would take hours to treat her hair, I thought, worried that our lives were about to be consumed with poison shampoo and that the combing and battles I had with Ashley were about to get worse. “John’s mom said she’s just shaving the whole family,” Liam shrugged. “Says she’ll see bugs easier that way, and that’ll teach them to borrow toques and earphones.” Ashley started laughing, because she was in the same class as John’s sister Kaylie. Kaylie had the most beautiful long, red, curly hair. I winced, thinking of that pretty hair being shaved off simply because of a common childhood pest.

But Ashley’s laugh infuriated me. “Kaylie’s going to look like a boy,” Ashley snorted, tossing her long brown braid over her back. “She is not pretty enough to pull off a brushcut. Their mom is so mean.” Hmm. It sounded like Ashley was the mean one from where I was standing. I read the public health list that Liam had brought home. Plastic zipper bags to store pillows and bedding. Wash everything in hot water and dry at the highest heat possible. Then seal it for two weeks anyway. We’d be sleeping on plastic pillow. Medicated shampoo. Comb through hair with a fine tooth, preferably steel, comb, closely inspecting for eggs. No wonder John’s mother was thinking of shaving everyone. The letter stated that shaving hair off was an option to make the medicated treatments more effective, but it was not required if time and care went into treatment. They weren’t the ones who would be combing through three feet of hair with a fine-toothed comb, I thought. Of course, my head immediately started itching, and I told myself it was psychosomatic as I pulled on my ponytail and grabbed my car keys.

“You guys start gathering your bedding,” I ordered them. “I’m going out to buy all the stuff we need. Start a load in hot water,” I told Ashley. “We have hours ahead of us before we can sleep tonight.” I was sure she rolled her eyes. She’d just started high school. Between Liam’s note and her attitude, I suspected I was in for a long year. By the time I’d gone to two different dollar stores to find the plastic zipper bags that would be big enough to hold our comforters and blankets, and wondered what we had in the cupboards that we could simply throw away when we had determined we were pest-free, I was feeling grumpy. My hair needed a wash, and I suspected my hands were going to be alternating between washing and drying clothes and bedding, while combing through crabby kids with tea tree shampoo. Of course, they keep all this stuff behind the counter at the drug store, so you can be embarrassed and ask for it. While I stood respectfully behind the barrier, waiting for my turn, I saw Olivia, (John and Kaylie’s mom.)

John had already had his hair buzzed off, and then I did a double take, because the cute little redhead with Olivia was not a punk-rock rebel, but Kaylie, in a buzzcut. Her eyes were red rimmed from crying and her normally milky pale skin was tear stained, but she was so cute in that haircut, I couldn’t stop myself. “Kaylie! Look at your haircut! That is so cute!” I gushed, because it was. I was not the stupid adult lying to a kid thinking that would lessen the pain of what had clearly been devastating for her. She had a bit of an Annie Lennox back in the Eurhythmics days vibe with her bright red hair shorn so close. And those cheekbones. There was nowhere to hide in this close cut, and Kaylie, contrary to what Ashley had to say about it, was gorgeous. “She’s furious with me,” Olivia admitted. “But I did not want to risk it with all that hair she had. We don’t have hours and hours to comb poison shampoo through her hair every night.” I noticed for the first time that Olivia’s hair appeared to also have been buzzed down shorter than usual. She always wore her hair short, and I sometimes thought that my husband had a little crush on her. “I think it’s awesome,” I repeated. “She’s got those beautiful green eyes, and you do a double take when you see her. She might even decide to keep it like that.” I was sure Kaylie wished me dead when I said it, but I kind of hoped she would. She was such a pretty girl and the buzzcut actually suited her. It made her prettier than when she had feet and feet of hair, even though her hair had been very pretty. The two together were just too much. Kaylie with a buzzcut was so cute, you noticed her. “Did you buy your plastic bags yet?” I asked Olivia. “It took me two dollar stores and they were running pretty low.”

Olivia said she’d been lucky enough to get hair clippers when she did and I wondered if that was a hint. More and more, I was thinking that Ashley was going to learn a hard lesson tonight. The pharmacist called me forward and when he asked how many people in our family and how long everyone’s hair was, I found myself unsure of how to answer that question. “We’re a family of four. My husband and son both have short hair, and my daughter is about to,” I blurted, and I believed myself. I didn’t know if I would have the guts to go through with it if Ashley cried like Kaylie had, but I didn’t think I had the patience to come through her hair with treatments and a steel comb, either. The pharmacist cautioned me that you don’t have to cut hair short to rid it of lice, and I hoped that Kaylie hadn’t heard that. I suspected Olivia hadn’t lied to her kids, but had told them that she knew she could rid them of lice without haircuts, but she was choosing not to go that route. Which was probably why Kaylie was so pissed. I paid for the products and then took a walk down the aisle with hairdryers and flat irons. And hair clippers.

I walked past the curling iron that Ashley had been asking for, and thought she wouldn’t be needing that any time soon. I guess my mind was made up. I just dreaded that she was going to hate me for what I was about to do. This is the joy of parenting, I reminded myself. Sometimes you have to hurt your kids to teach them. Both my husband Tom and I had grown up in strict homes with corporal punishment, and I knew that my mother would have dealt with Ashley with a leather belt. My way would take longer to recover from but would be better, I assured myself. Olivia hadn’t been wrong. The drug store was picked clean of haircutting kits. All that was left was a weird little tool that looked like a space invader come to life, that promised to work in any direction, and something called a Clean Cut. The picture on the box implied that it was exactly what it said- a tool that swept hair off your head like it was a hardwood floor. The kid on the box was clearly a good model, because he sold that haircut, if you could call a clean headshave a haircut.

Being that there wasn’t much choice left, I put both into a basket and searched the aisle for hair scissors and a comb for cutting. I was not ready to shave my daughter bald to teach her a lesson, but I remembered when Tom and I met, he a busy student athlete, his hairstyle was basically to have his head shaved every six weeks and let it grow in. Tom’s hair is curly, and he’s always worn it buzzed down too short to curl. Which made me remember something to suggest to Olivia, if I could catch her. “Well, I’m off to bag everything we own,” Olivia groaned when she saw me coming toward her. I said I was going home to battle with my kids, and do laundry. “I don’t want to be too forward, but I just thought of something while I was clipper shopping,” I admitted. “Tom has curly hair.” Olivia asked if that was why he wore it short. ‘Yeah, he’s never like looking like a brillo pad,” I laughed. “But he used to get ingrown hairs, because his dad wasn’t the most patient barber. It was only when he got to university and had to pay for a haircut that a barber told him that with curls, the best thing to do is follow the direction of hair growth.” I saw the realization hit Olivia’s face. “I just shaved Kaylie from the nape up. From the forehead back,” she winced. “She’s going to hate me even more.” That was why I had gone to look for Olivia. “Tom’s learned a few tricks over the years,” I shared. “Every now and then, he gets a barber who does the same, and Tom won’t stop a person and ask them to shave the opposite of how they know. So, we have a lot of witch hazel in our house. He rubs that over his head to keep the hair follicles from clogging. It doesn’t dry out his hair. And he’s really aggressive with his comb. He combs from the crown out, and he scrapes his scalp when he does. If you’re using a metal nit comb anyway, that should do it. And next time, shave it from the crown out. Tell her to really use her nails when she washes her hair.” But, please, shave her again because she is going to love that haircut eventually.

Olivia thanked me for the tip, though I suspected Kaylie hated my guts. At least she could hate Ashley’s mom instead of her own for a while. I paid for the various cutting tools, drove home, and was furious when I saw that there was not a single load of bedding or clothes spinning in the washer, none drying, no dinner had been started. I had pretty clear when I left what I expected. Liam had at least stripped his bed and started sorting laundry, but Ashley was playing on her computer. She hadn’t even started her homework, she was playing on Facebook. I got Liam to carry his laundry to the closet so we could get that started and asked him to set the table. Then I asked Ashley what she thought she was doing, and I saw the Facebook thread she was on. She and three of her friends were commenting back and forth about Kaylie’s brushcut, and how stupid her mother was to shave her head, and how awful it must look. I had to restrain myself from getting violent with my daughter. I stood behind her and made her post an apology to Kaylie, and then turn off her computer and start gathering her laundry. I phoned Olivia to apologize for my daughter’s shameful behaviour. “I thought we’d raised her better,” I admitted. “Well, I thought we’d never be a family that got headlice,” Olivia reflected. “Kids are jerks.”

When Tom got home, he saw the chaos the house was in and I handed him the note from school. Immediately his hand flew to his head. “Why is it my head itches just reading the word?” he asked me. I said mine had done the same. Then I told him that I hadn’t checked Ashly or myself yet, but he should read her Facebook posts from this afternoon and then ask why I am reconsidering our stance on child beating. “I’ll make dinner,” he said. “I’ll rescue you from the washer-dryer when it’s ready.” As Liam and I packed his stuff into plastic bags, I told him that there would probably be lots of girls in his school with really short haircuts in the next few days. It wasn’t something to tease about or make fun of. “Mom, my friends and I aren’t mean girls like Ashley and her friends are,” he replied. What? Our daughter was a mean girl? I was thankful to be smelling Tom’s lasagna baking, because I really needed some comfort food. Still, the thought of those close cutting clippers loomed in the back of my head.

“Wow, you meant business,” Tom passed me in the hallway, holding the boxes from the drug store. They were empty now, so I figured he must be charging the clippers. “There wasn’t much choice left,” I explained. “Well, after what I’ve just read, I mean business, too,” he declared. “Did Olivia cut her own hair, or just Kaylie’s?” Why was he asking about Olivia? He did have a crush on her. “She’s got a cute little brushcut, too,” I replied. My stare added that I wanted to know why that mattered. “Well, if she’s going to make her daughter get a buzzcut, she should be willing to do the same,” he reflected. I wondered if that was meant to be food for thought for me. I had made up my mind that Ashley was getting a good lesson-teaching snip, but I hadn’t thought that if I found a nit in my own hair, that might mean a short cut for me, too. “Dinner will be ready in about half, but that gives me time to give Liam a haircut. Are we going with orange one, or the one that looks like a space invader?” I laughed, actually laughed, because I had thought the same thing when I saw it. I needed that moment of levity. “I think that’s up to Liam,” I suggested. “What do think, Liam? An allover buzz, or clean to the skin?” Liam shrugged, because he simply didn’t care. Tom had always kept his hair short, and he knew that it grew back. “I’m thinking a bit of both,” Tom told me, and asked Liam to bring a chair into the bathroom. “Maybe the barstool, so I don’t have to stoop.” When I walked into Ashley’s room to get her first load of laundry, she was on her phone, complaining to one of her friends about how I’d made her write the apology to Kaylie. That was it! If I had to scissor her hair, so be it. I took the phone from her, told her friend that Ashley would not be speaking to her again tonight, probably for longer, and that they were both awful girls and should be ashamed of themselves.

Taking a teenager’s phone from her is something she considered child abuse, and I thought she had no idea what I was capable of. I could hear all sorts of buzzing and whirring coming from the bathroom. I didn’t hear Liam complaining or asking Tom not to go any shorter, so I checked on the lasagna and wondered who I would check my own hair for nits. I’d probably need Tom’s help. When the bathroom door opened, my son stepped out in a closely-shaved crewcut, tight on top and clean-shaven at the back and sides. It was adorable. I understood what Tom had meant when he said that he was thinking of using both clippers. He’d obviously used the all over shaver and then used the clean cutting one on the sides and back. If my kid would sit for a haircut like that, I almost didn’t care that it was nits that made it happen. That was when I caught site of Tom, freshly buzzed himself. “That little spaceship is so easy,” he gushed. “Liam helped me cut my hair.” Tom was sporting freshly shaved whitewalls, clean to the skin, so I suspected either he or Liam had also passed the clean cutting clippers over the sides of his head and back as well. “You look like you used to when we first met,” I smiled. Tom laughed and said he was pretty sure he didn’t have grey hair when we met.

“This is going to be a big change for you, though,” he added, casually. “You’ve never had short hair.” What? I guess I knew what Tom was expecting. I knew he wasn’t wrong. Olivia had taken the clippers to her kids and had her own hair buzzed short. Tom was standing there in a closely clipped crewcut, matching Liam’s supershort, but cute as hell haircut. Ashley was being mean and I wanted to shear her to teach her that there is more to a person’s character than the length of her hair. I did need to put my money where my mouth was. But I had never had my hair cut short in my life. I had no idea how it would look. I guess I would sooner find out, and it would grow back, so I’d better hope that Tom had a talent with those shears.

We ate dinner, while Ashely pouted, thinking that losing her phone had been her punishment. “Liam, do you want to check on the laundry?” Tom asked him after dinner. “Then get started on your homework? Ashley, we’ll need you in the bathroom,” he added, loosening his belt. Whoah. I was totally on board with a short haircut, but I was not on board with corporal punishment. “I’m going to need your help,” Tom added to me. Ashley immediately started freaking out, but Tom patiently guided her toward the chair he’d placed in front of the cabinet and told her to sit. “Mom!” she pleaded with me. “Your mother can’t help you,” Tom said sharply, pushing her onto the chair and wrapping his belt around her shoulders. She was secured to the chair now, and would not be able to escape the haircut that was about to be given to her. I exhaled, grateful that we didn’t have to fight about whether or not she was going to be hit, and realized that I was totally fine with whatever haircut Tom gave her. Ashley still protested, but Tom gave her a look that suggested he was not unwilling to slap her if she didn’t stop. He’d printed out her Facebook comments and he passed them to her. “Read these. Out loud.”

Ashley knew she was cornered. She read her comments quietly, tears rolling down her cheeks. Shame burning, finally. “What do you suggest is an appropriate punishment?” Tom asked her tersely. “I should call Kaylie and apologize in person,” Ashley suggested. “And post an apology that I mean, not the one Mom made me write.” Tom waited. “You’re not actually going to give me a buzzcut?” Ashley asked him, practically begging him. “No,” Tom replied, and she breathed a sigh of relief. “Your mother is going to cut off your hair. I vote for a crewcut, though.” The hysteria began afresh, but Tom simply passed me the scissors and held her head steady while I snipped. I knew that whatever I did to Ashely could possibly end up being my haircut later, but I had also raised a mean girl, so I steeled myself and picked up a handful of hair, on top of her head. Then I snipped it off, below my fingers. Ashely watched in horror as I took section after section, mercilessly cutting off her long hair, leaving foot after foot of cutting to hit the floor with zero apology. Ashley cried but did not scream or fight. After I’d shorn the top, she would have been left with a mullet had we stopped, so she was resigned now to her short cut. Each time I held the blades next to her head and cut, I felt like she was never going to send another cruel Facebook post, and even thought she might be the subject of a few mean comments herself. Still, I kept cutting. I suppose I could have decided to use the clippers over a comb and try to give her something wispy or slightly longer than a brushcut, but I felt like she needed a hard lesson.

So, I grabbed the Space Invaders and finished her cut with an allover, uniform buzzing. She cried as I did it, but I was determined that she would only learn this lesson once in her life. I looked at Tom to see if he approved, and he replied by taking the clean cutting clippers and shaving a strip above each ear. Then he shaved across the back, until she was clean cut from the temples down. He took the comb and blended the top to her clean shorn sides and then asked me for her phone. He took a picture of her, with her long locks cut off and sitting at her feet, a cape dusted with the buzzed off sections, and a head with next to not hair on top it, and passed her phone to her. “Make that your new Facebook profile picture,” he told her. “You have got to be kidding me,” Ashley protested. Tom eyed the clean cut clippers and eyed the top of her head, where she still had hair to shave. “Okay, you’ve made your point,” she scowled, rolling her eyes. “I don’t think I have made my point,” Tom retorted. “Or you wouldn’t have dared take that tone just now.” He then picked up the clippers and plowed them across the top of her head, leaving a smooth, clean path behind. “Are we clear now?” he asked her, as he cleaned up the tufts on each side, leaving her with a completely bald head. She was as smooth as a cueball.

Ashley nodded. Tom snapped another photo on her phone and passed it to her. “Update your profile picture.” A few clicks and Ashley’s profile was updated. “Did you want to post a comment about why this happened?” he prodded her. Ashley nodded again, and clicked a few keys. “Just learned a hard lesson about the consequences of being a mean girl,” she wrote, and clicked on save. “Now call Kaylie and sincerely apologize,” Tom ordered, still eyeing the clean shaving clipper. He couldn’t take off any more hair than he’d already done, but she still responded to the threat and dialed her phone. “Hi, Kaylie, please don’t hang up,” she said when Kaylie answered. “First, I wanted to say that I’m sorry for being such a bitch to you online tonight. And to ask if you’ve looked at Facebook lately.” Kaylie said she’d turned off her computer hours ago, because she was sick of the things that people were saying. Her tone implied that Ashley ought to know that. “Well, you may want to look again, because I’m sure there’s a new target now,” Ashley exhaled, and waited while Kaylie loaded her page. “Oh my God, Ashley, I’m so sorry. I know your mom was trying to tell me that my haircut looked good, but I didn’t think she’d get ideas from that.”

Ashley tried to laugh, and said “No, they got ideas from all the mean things I wrote. This was my fault, not yours.” Immediately, we started to hear the pings of updates, and Ashley began to cry again. Girls really are mean, and the rude comments were mortifying. “It’ll be back in a few days,” Kaylie tried to console her, and Ashley’s profile pinged with another comment: Kudos to my friend Ashley for braving an even shorter haircut than mine, just to make me feel better. “I don’t deserve those props,” Ashley sniffled. “Maybe not. But you don’t deserve all the crap that Megan’s written, either. I’ll see you at school tomorrow.” Ashley read another post from Megan and then turned off her phone. I wish I could say that I felt bad for her, but I didn’t. She deserved the haircut, even if the rude comments from her friends were across the line. Kaylie had by then uploaded a photo of herself in her new, cute buzzcut. The tear stains had faded and her green eyes just about burst off the page. “How long is it going to take for this to grow back?” Ashley asked us quietly, as she began to sweep up the shavings of her mean girl hair. “I guess that will depend on when we let you start growing it out,” Tom replied.

Ashley gulped again but said nothing. She knew that she was in her father’s bad books, and the only way out was to earn her way. “Should we take some of the big stuff to a laundromat?” she asked me. “Then we’d have more machines running at the same time?” It was actually a good idea. Even if she was just sucking up, she had shown contrition, and Tom would forgive her after much Facebook monitoring. We owned those clippers now, so at any time, he could pass the even cutting version over her head. At any time, he could go clean to the skin. While we were stuffing our comforters and bedding into several washing machines, I got a text from Olivia:

Thank you. Your kind words to Kaylie helped her see the beauty in her new buzzcut. Ashley’s apology helped a lot, too. Next time, I am going to take your advice and shave outwards. Kaylie doesn’t know it yet, but she’s keeping that haircut.

I decided that since I had partially planted the seeds to Kaylie’ keeping a buzzcut, that would be when we would let Ashley grow hers out. When Kaylie grew hers back. I didn’t tell her that, either. I wasn’t sure if I was happy that Olivia had decided to keep Kaylie buzzed, because it was darling on her, or sad because that meant Ashley would stay clipped. Seeing her in this light, with nothing but her clean cut head, it did bring out her pixie-like features. I thought of all the brushing and braiding we wouldn’t have to worry about from now on, and thought I’d be scheduling professional salon trims once her hair grew in a bit. I’d schedule them frequently enough to keep her hair cute, but short.

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