Audio Version: Enforced Motivation (Youtube)
“… I will keep this assembly short and, debatably, sweet.” The headteacher began.
Typical tropes ensued, talk of futures and ‘real world expectations’. Arguments could be made of their true significance, but this cohort had significantly underperformed in recent mock exams. Barely three months before the real thing, the outlook was ominous.
“Unacceptable. There will be changes, compulsory changes. Phones, homework… Dress code.” A rare smile swept across Ms. Mitchell’s face.
Jess’ focus jumped in and out, presumably like her peers. Teenage indifference kicking in past the 30 second mark. Unconsciously twirling the ends of her hair with nervous compulsion, brought on by the headteacher’s coded speech. She almost plucked a strand in shock as she tuned back in.
“… Enforcement to be swift, parents informed…” Speech continuing. A collectively suppressed groan replied back. “I expect cooperation… Be ready for Individual reviews, beginning with the lowest performers. Do not make me wait.” Ms. Mitchell’s tone transforming seamlessly into threatening by the end as she dismissed the hall.
Jess existed below lowest. A serial offender on Ms. Mitchell’s radar. Despite half-hearted attempts, studying never truly took off. Adolescence resisting responsibility like the plague in the presence of a Netflix watch-list. Jess stared into contemplative nothingness.
“Hey, Jess. You good?” Sarah reached out to her dazed friend, sweet and caring as always, standing alongside Lily.
“Uh. Oh, yeah.” Jess gasped. “Uh just, made me jump… Hi girls.” Snapping back to reality, greeting the duo.
Formed during primary school, the trio’s bond grew stronger each year – even as their individualities sprouted. Jess was a natural beauty, holding an athletic figure year-round with ease. She was the oldest, just barely, bearing the fruits of development in the form of a waist length mane. Thick, mousy brown tresses, holding a hint of wave as they danced around her Mediterranean complexion. She adored it.
Lily held second place lengthwise. Dead straight locks grazing her bra strap. Glossy honey blonde shimmering under the corridor lighting. Possibly considered a tad boring. Practical prettiness, it matched her uniquely. A bright mind, always willing to lend a hand, Jess routinely turned down her tutoring offers.
Last was Sarah. Hairstyles rarely stayed long-term. Long, short, permed, straight, whatever took her fancy. Currently, the dense mass sat at her collarbone. A deep, impenetrable noir lob with thick blunt bangs. Sharp lines framing similarly carved facial features. Her lively, dynamic appearance overshadowed middle-of-the-road results.
“Any theories on these ‘changes’?” Jess asked them, hoping for reassurance. Group instinctively turning to the appointed ‘smart one’.
“… Uhm. I bet it’s nothing. Reminders about general tidiness or whatever.” Lily’s answer sensible indeed.
“Ughhh. I just wanna finish all this, so sick of exam talk…” Sarah let out her frustration under her breath, girls reading the email as it arrived. “When are you guys up?”
“3:15, last thing. Not bad, I suppose.” Lily responded. “You?”
“1:30, just after lunch,” said Sarah. “… Jess?”
“Up first, I guess. Got like, 10 minutes…” Her voice trembled a touch, vague threat of the unknown gripping her stomach.
“Hey, hey, relax. It won’t be fun but… What’s the worst that could happen?” Lily’s rationality struck. “It’ll be a lecturing; you’ll promise to work harder… Simple. We’ll meet afterwards, as soon as that lunch bell rings, eh.” Nurturing instincts comforting her friend in a moment’s notice.
“Ye… Yeah. Nothing new, huh…” Jess forced an awkward smile. “See ya…”
She arrived. A characterless office hidden inside a labyrinth of equally dull rooms. Double checking the email confirmed it, block C – room 12, Jess unable to recall ever passing here before. The door flew open, a beckoning Ms. Mitchell the culprit.
“Ahhh. Precisely on time… Surprisingly.” Ms. Mitchell’s brow scrunched with scepticism. “Sit.” She led her inside.
Jess perched herself atop cheap office chair, majestically flicking her hair back as she settled. The room had a noticeably odd layout. Desks pushed aside. No chairs, other than hers, which had been wheeled right to the centre. She didn’t bother getting comfy, eager for a brief interaction.
“… So, Jess. Not much studying?” The headteacher called her out.
“Well, I. No. No, sorry… I’ll do better. I promise…” Jess hoped she hadn’t overplayed that card already.
“I’m sure… Make no mistake, there must be consequences… Insurance, perhaps, that this behaviour doesn’t repeat.” She listened intently to the cryptic monologue as Ms. Mitchell continued. “Shall we begin?”
The young woman nodded, assuming an incoming reprimand from the towering figure.
“Sit back, dear. It’ll be comfier…” She advised before calling out. “Come in.”
Jess’ head hung low. She dodged eye contact, assuming her parents were entering. Strangely, silence remained, apart from the rustling of a bag. Some kind of black sheet swung across her, shocking her into a bolt-upright position. With light sheen and some creasing the plastic ruffled as it was pulled to her neck.
“Wha… Huh?” She blurted out.
“One of our amendments. Dress code, naturally.” Ms. Mitchell wistfully informed.
“… You. You can’t. I won’t let… My parents won’t…” Jess stammered, trying to rise up in defiance, hushed before she could finish.
“They have… And you will.” She held up her phone, email proof of parental permission.
Jess slumped back down, betrayed by her kin. Parents seemingly reaching the end of their tolerance. Resisting was hopeless. Even she knew expulsion was too great a risk. It might’ve been different, had she not brought this on herself. She squirmed. Tugs at her hair sparking pockets of rage. Cape fastened; the faceless stylist lay the lengthy hair down Jess’ front. Ms. Mitchell’s face betraying a hint of jealousy upon examining the gowned girl’s tresses.
“Onto our new, improved, dress code. You’ll get a letter about uniform. However, this part necessitates personal choice.” Headteacher unloading information and setting her expectation. “We’ve generously given you a say, unlike the boys. In return, please, a simple answer. No arguments.”
“… Fine…” A defeated Jess sighed through gritted teeth.
“Oh honey, everyone will get this too, in time. Nevertheless, Bowl or Pixie?” Her offer froze Jess to the seat.
Silence remained. Jess clenched her jaw, squeezing her eyes closed in denial. From the moment she heard ‘bowl’, trying not to throw up. Ms. Mitchell clarified the options to her caped student.
“Bowl would be just off the top of the ear. Basically bald underneath, obviously.” She paused. “Or Pixie: Tapered, buzzed ever so short. Top permitted up to four inches, provided it remains neatly styled. That last part goes for both.” She finished, awaiting response to commence.
“… I… Pixie…” Jess took a hearty breath, selecting lesser of two evils in her mind. At least she wouldn’t resemble a mushroom.
A look exchanged between teacher and barber, grin emerging on the former. Jess shuddered as a hand was placed on her shoulder, difficult to tell if it was in sympathy.
“Excellent.” Ms. Mitchell’s cheerfulness creating dissonance in the room. “Best start, lots to take off this one…” She spoke again to the hairdresser, who’d readily sectioned the top.
Swipes of the comb passed through her silky lengths. A final therapeutic goodbye as she felt the motion leveraged from way below. Returning to stillness, clicks and clacks of plastic could be heard behind.
POP. Electric thunder erupted. Jess’ eyes almost jumped out of their sockets. Her whole head shaking as a firm hand directed her head into her chest. The clippers echolocated themselves on her behalf, presence in space sensed to millimetre precision. Blades landed at scalp’s shore. She felt a clump of roots raising in advance of intense vibration. Scooping underneath, the clippers scraped off the first of the remarkable length.
Severed locks fluttered the short distance to the floor. Almost two full feet discarded in a flash. Then more. Another patch, clippers riding higher with each flick. Jess gripped the chair with white knuckles. She could feel an armada of tears forming as she held them back to no avail. Oscillations rattled her skull, releasing a flood of sobs in the process. Cascades of glorious tresses descended. Their demise forming an ocean of lifeless mocha on the gloomy, navy carpet.
Clippering continued, her head uncharacteristically light as incredible quantities tumbled from its grasp. Tingling rippled across her skin. A combination of breeze hitting untouched territory and ongoing buzzing running back and forth. The latter repeating constantly. Back, cleared. Right, cleared. Left, a couple of strips remained. She now sported prickly fuzz from ear to ear. Cape coated in a fine dust of clippings at her shoulders. Stubble, unable to stray far from follicle, her natural colour seemingly lightening with only a #2 guard’s worth remaining. At longest, that is. A low tapering – down to a zero – blurred the hairline into tidy absence. With no mirror, Jess was blind to the downfall. Ms. Mitchell, however, stunned by the view. She remained ever-present, watching over the graphic shearing.
Inspected and self-approved, the clipper wielding stylist ended their mowing. Silence rang in everyone’s ears, signalling the end of her luscious waves. Simply knowing extinguished a part of her soul. Teardrops persisted, exceeding regular reserves for this special occasion. As a cruel reminder, the twisted top swung over her face upon un-clipping. Efficient hands tended to the remainder. First blending into the shorn perimeter fields. Rapid slices from the shears making short work of the still standing length. Next, the top tackled directly. Segments across her crown pulled taught, gripped by experienced fingers. Exactly four inches from scalp, scissors made their incision. The motion recurred. Back to front as cuttings slid over their previous owner. Each close of the shears a deafening crunch. Keratin forest succumbing to steel.
Final touches were made. Re-cutting of the top, mainly. Cleaning up the bulk removal, finalising Jess’ longest lengths at three and a half inches. Ponytails and buns becoming distant memories. Finally, the cape taken away after a vicious 15 minutes. Nylon crackling under the intensity as clinging fragments slipped off onto Jess’ shoes. She stared on, paralysed.
“Much improved, as I hope your grades will be.” Ms. Mitchell felt necessary to keep to the allocated time. “You’ll require bi-weekly trims, as is mandatory. Failure to comply results in forfeit of all hair.”
Jess sank forward, crushed by the reality of her situation, already dreading the follow-ups. She looked and felt a mess. Her makeup smeared down her cheeks, swirled by sweat and tears. Itchy shards spilled inside her collar as she leaned over, adding physical discomfort to emotional.
“I might add, Jess, for motivation… This haircut, it stays until you pass. Three short months or a whole additional retake year. I’ll leave that up to you…” The headteacher’s words delivered with refined fury. “Back to lesson. And for God’s sake, clean yourself up first.”