by Tiffany Spence
Winter break was coming to an end and it was time for everyone to prepare to return to school for the second half of 5th grade. All of my cousins had just returned from visiting other relatives in Denver, Colorado. Unfortunately, I had not been invited on this trip. All five girls, rushed into my room to brag about how much fun they had experienced. I noticed that each of them had their hair fixed in neatly parted braids. I never had braids before and had always wanted them. I was afraid to ask my aunt because sometimes it seemed as if my presence repulsed her. Although, my mom lived with us, my aunt was my immediate care giver. I walked timidly into my aunt’s room and asked with hopeful eyes, “Aunt Jean, can I get my hair fixed too?”
“Of course you can,” she belted. “I have already made you an appointment for this evening.” Oblivious to the hint of frustration in her voice, I scuttled excitedly back to my bedroom to hear more about my cousins’ trip.
Later that evening, we arrived at my aunt’s co-worker house. I couldn’t wait to see what my braids would look like. The lady had just finished applying a relaxer on my hair in order to straighten it. Or at least that is what I thought. She walked into her spacious kitchen, reached into the cabinet below the sink, and dragged out a clear plastic container. She walked back over to me and dumped the container’s contents onto the kitchen table. Assorted colored rods, ranging from small to large, covered the table. My eyes began to immediately fill with salty water as I realized what was happening. I was not getting braids like the rest of my cousins. I was getting a jheri curl! It’s the year 1995; who even wears a jheri curl anymore? Why is this happening to me? As tears flooded my eyes, I glanced over to the couch, only to find my cousins giggling like a pack of hyenas.
It had been two long weeks since that disappointing day. I endured endless teasing from my classmates, as if my new look had changed who I was. It was unbearable to go to school. My 5th grade teacher, Mr. Sharp, released the class for recess. All the kids rushed outside as if they had been freed from being held captive for ten years. I was in no hurry to get to the playground. I sat alone with my face buried in my arms on the wooden desk. “Ms. Spence, you cannot let others bring you down. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you,” he said with simplicity. “Now, get up and let’s go outside.” But their words did hurt me.
I dragged my feet as if they weighed 100lbs, eventually making it to the playground, hoping to go unnoticed. It was too late. Chloe, dressed in a soft blue Guess blouse, and blue jeans, appeared from behind me. Unexpectedly, she shoved me from behind. The shove was so powerful that before I knew it, my face was buried into the sea of tiny rocks. I heard an uproar of laughter as the other kids gathered around, forming a ring shape around me. “Jheri curl, jheri curl. Drip, drip, drip”, they chimed like an orchestra. I tried to fight back tears, knowing it would make the situation worse, but to no avail the lump that formed in my throat needed to find relief. Suddenly, a girl with almond shaped eyes and long curly locks gently placed her hand on my shoulder, attempting to help me on my feet. I flinched as if her hand was burning with flames. As she continued to hold out her hand I realized that she was trying to help me, not hurt me.
Initially, I was taken aback by her kindness because it had been a while since anyone treated me in this positive manner. Brittney, had proven to be different through her supportive actions.
When I got home that evening, I tried to explain to my aunt the incident that had occurred at school. I hung my head low, as my aunt scolded me with an accusatory tone, “If you can’t stand up for yourself, then maybe you need to be beaten every day. You make me sick,” she hissed. I could not fathom why my family did not have my back. Instead of words of encouragement or offering solutions, things were somehow my fault. For instance, like the time I couldn’t go to the skating arena with the rest of my cousins because I didn’t have enough money. “I am not paying for you. Your mama should have sent money for you,” she said, while the rest of my cousins piled into her white Honda, ready to go.
One year later, the bell rang at 3:45 pm, dismissing everyone from their 7th period class. I skipped blissfully to my locker relieved that there wouldn’t be any stressful, demanding homework assignments for a whole week. As I crammed my three inch notebook into my overcrowded locker, a sheet of paper slipped onto the busy hallway floor while students shuffled to leave. I stared proudly at the red marks on the graded government assignment. Those intense study sessions that took place all week had paid off. My best friend, Brittney, scared the living day lights out of me when she shouted, “Hey girl! Are you ready!?”
I smiled and yelled, “Absolutely!” I had been invited to spend spring break with her and her family. As soon as we walked into their cozy home, Brittney’s mother wrapped her arms around me as if she had known me for years; embracing me in the warmest hug. I smiled from ear to ear and couldn’t recall the last time I had felt accepted.
After Brittney and I settled onto her soft bed, I began to share my latest encounter at school, which occurred earlier in the week. “It took everything in me not to ride the school bus home, and walk instead.” I declared. “Kimberly and Carl made jokes about my hair the whole way. ‘Ha, ha there goes the drip!’” I imitated. I don’t know why, but I expected Brittney to scold me, as my aunt would whenever I spoke about bullying.
To my surprise she said with sincerity, “Those kids are the ones who are missing out. Who cares that your hair is different? I have an idea! Let’s see if we can do something different with your hair,” she said jumping off the bed with excitement. Seeing her wide grin filled with optimism, I was left with no choice, but to absorb her positive energy. Being able to let my guard down was like a breath of fresh air. It was unfortunate that I was not able to share my feelings with my aunt or cousins; however, I could count on them to belittle, or make my life worse. They were definitely part of the problem, and not the solution.
That evening at dinner, Brittney’s mother expressed, “Tiffany, I want you to know that you are a part of our family and you are welcome here any time.” I was grateful to finally be around people who genuinely showed that they cared through their actions and kindness. It was the exact opposite of what I was experiencing at home. The time I spent with them opened my eyes to a new family dynamic, a new reality. From my perspective, the “happy” family only existed on television. I accepted being laughed at, teased, and treated poorly to be the norm. In just a week, I witnessed Brittney’s family enjoying each other’s presence and up lifting one another with encouraging words. At the age of 11, I made a choice; I wasn’t going back to the unhappy girl who was bullied. I understood that not a single person was perfect, but at least I had something to strive for.
 A jheri curl is a hairstyle that was popular in the 70’s and 80’s, trending amongst the African American community. The permed hairstyle required daily use of activator spray and moisturizer, resulting in a greasy residue on furnishings and clothing.