Breakfast and Cornrows
I sat staring at the back of her head for at least three hours. All right, maybe it was only twenty seconds, but it felt like three hours. What on earth is going on? In some places the braids were so tight that the hair stood out at right angles before drooping to the shoulders. It looked a little like the action of a horse’s tail, just before doing his business. In other areas the braids were loosely started, halfway down the gathered lock of hair. My nearly twelve year old daughter had set a new standard for cornrows, but it was a standard that I did not understand. It was a disturbing beginning, particularly before breakfast.
“I like it!”, she said.
“Yes, well, I can see that you would. All you can see is the front. The front is fine, nicely spaced, even braids. It’s the back I’m talking about,” I explained. As if I even cared about the neat front rows. I just didn’t like it. I was being tested, and I didn’t like that either. I rustled about the kitchen gathering the various items to pack for her and her brother’s school lunches.
“I looked at the back when I was doing it, it looks fine. I saw it in the mirror,” she replied.
Yeah, right. My daughter is a brilliant girl, kind, funny, but not very objective when it comes to her own opinions. The word stubborn comes to mind. She wasn’t budging an inch and the two dozen cornrows were staying firmly on her head.
“Listen, you’re really pushing the limits here. I mean, I understand that you don’t mind being different, but it seems to me that you have an unhealthy desire to be “weird” or something. I really think you should think this over before going to school like that.”
I felt I had some pretty strong ground here. I was giving due respect, appealing to her logic, sharing my judgment on the merits. And if that didn’t work then I guess I expected for her to come around to my point simply on the basis that I, as her father, was disturbed.
“Okay, I thought about it and I think it’s fine,” she offered, and that was the end of the conversation
Hmm, this was not going well. It was almost as if she sensed that my arguments were unsound and therefore unworthy of further attention. Was this true? What was my dislike? The lack of displayed symmetry? Was it BoDerekphobia? Or was it those arrogant little raised horse tails, that seemed to say, “Kiss my rear.”
A few days earlier I had found a box that sort of fell out of the pile stacked in the garage. A carton of icons, each one loaded with an entire database of memories. Not a lot of written words, no notebooks of young angst, no diaries of adventures. Mostly objects. A fender mirror from my first vehicle, a half eaten high school diploma, a paper placemat from a restaurant in West Yellowstone. Oddities with stories attached. My life in a box. And only one box at that. I should at least explain the half-eaten diploma. My dog ate it. He never touched my homework in three long years of high school, but as soon as I graduated, he ate my diploma.
Anyway, sorting through this collection I came upon an old photo of my ninth grade class. It was the typical photo where the entire class gathers on the front steps, and the photographer takes the shot hoping for a minimum of finger gestures, grimaces and general chaos. Somewhere on those steps was a younger and wiser version of myself. As I scanned those fresh faces I was surprised how familiar most of them were even after thirty-five years. Characters from the past, leaping fresh into my consciousness. It was a great time, a time of innocence, and years before any of these people made serious mistakes. It was, in some cases, the last year of the trouble free life of a child.
Laying my finger briefly on each face, I recalled what the future would bring. Here there was death in a traffic accident, speeding on a motorcycle, no helmet. Here there was madness, after a long series of drug addictions. And this fellow, a hopeless alcoholic. This young lady, drugs, welfare, four children before age twenty. More and more, drugs, jail, and death.
The whole class didn’t fall into disaster. At least I don’t think so. I’m not sure because I didn’t know everybody. It just seemed that most of my friends had particularly hard lives. In fact, only two or three seemed to survive out of the two dozen that loosely hung together. I suppose I had thought about this before, but this time I was struggling with the reasons. Was there something here, in this last innocent photo, that gave a hint?
Suddenly it came to me. None of us fit in. All of us were somehow on the edge, not quite a part of the whole. Different in thought, different in deed. Our stumbling identities only defined by our own association with each other. Bright in some cases, talented in others, but uniformly weird in all instances.
And now my daughter seems bent upon being weird in her own right. I had this mental flash of how many could I save, if I could just go back in time and warn them. Would they listen to a caring stranger? If they wouldn’t listen, could I force them? I couldn’t do it for them, but this was my daughter, and I was not giving her up to the bleak future of nonconformity. At least not without a fight.
All of this seemed to solidify in the few minutes it took to make her school lunch. As I made the cheese sandwich, I pondered her future. As I bagged her tortilla chips I resolved to make a difference.
“Okay, that’s it. No more cornrows, I tried to give you the freedom to make wise decisions and you refused, so now I’ll step in and provide the rules. No more weirdness. You will not court weirdness, nor seek to be different, or any of that stuff. You’re too young and if you go on this way then what wild and crazy thing will you pull when you’re eighteen. Later on, you can wear your hair however you want, but for right now, lose the braids.”
Dead silence, shocked expressions. My son froze, his toast halfway to his mouth.
I could see in her eyes the deep hurt, even with the one word of acquiescence. She couldn’t know what I was thinking, and didn’t understand how I could react the way I was reacting. Her eyes just misted over and she prepared herself to walk whatever line I asked her to walk.
Now it was beginning to dawn on me that things hadn’t gone quite the way I wanted. I knew I was struggling, but somehow the noose was just getting drawn tighter the more I twisted. I was almost swinging in the breeze due to my own efforts when my wife came in to the picture. Good, I’ll explain what I did, she’ll understand and together we will force, uh, together we will demand that, umm, together we will make it right.
“So, what do we do now?” I confided.
“Seems to me that you have done what you have done pretty much on your own,” she said quietly.
Whoops, definitely swinging in the breeze now, twisting slowly in the wind.
“Oh, sure. Now that’s being supportive. I ask for help here and this is what I get.”, I said with some anger but more confusion.
“Its hard to be very supportive of someone that is wrong,” she patiently explained.
Yeah, well, huh. I knew it would come down to this. Skewered by the truth. It was the truth. My fear lead me to over-control. My love lead me to over-react. I can’t stop my daughter from being different, I can’t protect her from the unknown future. All I can do is love her and equip her with the tools of life. Part of those tools included discernment, confidence, faith in God, compassion, service, and discipline. And ultimately I needed to trust in God.
So, I called her over to apologize and to try to explain my actions. I thanked her for being obedient and I hoped that she understood that even parents make mistakes, and when that happens I believe the parent should make it right and apologize. She listened, and nodded, and seemed saddened about my loss of friends. I told her that her hair was her business and that I was just scared. I still didn’t like the cornrows, though. She smiled and said, “That’s okay.” The cornrows stayed.
She seemed at that moment much wiser than I.