Sun | Jan 21, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | No bad hair, no bad talking!

Published:Sunday | September 25, 2016 | 12:00 AM

I couldn't get a job teaching English in any government school. It's not just because I'm overage. It's my hair. I'm sporting a mohawk. And it's coloured. Greenish. Not prosperity green but a more subtle shade - teal. That's one of those colours your average Jamaican man just cannot comprehend. It's clearly not in his black and white colour scheme. By the way, gentlemen, teal is blue-green - a colour definitely designed to confuse you.

The last time I went to my hair colourist Eugent at Pulse, I met a primary school teacher in the salon who gave me bill and receipt on the hair issue at her school. Teachers cannot colour their hair. But she has defied the rules. She has a lovely patch of three colours at the back of her head. Way back! When she has to speak with authority figures at school, she makes sure to back away. It's not deference. It's caution. She can't take the chance that her underground hair colour might attract attention. She could be fired.

I had a good laugh. But the more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it seemed. Adults must be free to choose how they style their hair. Even for work. Why are schools stifling creativity? What's wrong with a splash or two of colour in your hair that gives you positive vibes? And what about all those self-deceiving old people who dye their hair black? Isn't that an unnatural colour for grey-haired people? They fool no one with their rather optimistic young hair on their old face. They don't know they would look much younger with a hair colour that matches the age of their face.




Then don't get me wrong. I'm all for school uniforms. For students, not teachers. Especially in our class-conscious society, uniforms help to level the playing field. But they can't completely erase class differences. There are still hierarchies. I remember the son of one my friends asking me get a backpack for him on my travels. But he insisted that it must be JanSport, the status symbol at the time. He was not prepared to get stuck with a presumably inferior brand.

And as for who comes to school by bus or car! But it all depends on the car. Another one of my friends told me that her daughters used to ask her to drop them off at the corner so they wouldn't turn up at school in her lickle old car. It was, apparently, worse than coming by bus! Well, you know she made sure to take them right to the school gate every single day. She would not put up with their folly.

Athough I do support uniforms for students, I cannot defend uniformity. Even for students, there must be room for individuality. But it's so much easier to regulate conformity than to cultivate creativity. School administrators excel at making up rules. It makes life so easy for them. All staff and students must march in a single line of relentless compliance.

Those creative types who stray out of line, for whatever reason, have to be policed. They must be forced to conform. The school system simply cannot accommodate deviation from its rigid standards. Deviation demands reflection. Deviants ask difficult questions about why things are done a certain way. And they don't accept foolish answers.




Then even more distressing than the hair story was the primary-school teacher's report about problems communicating with her students the first week of school. The children simply don't understand English. I can't remember her exact words but she said something like, "Children, let us go outside!" Not a soul moved. Then she translated: "Mek wi go outa yard!" Everybody immediately responded.

Jamaican really isn't English. We continue to think of our local language as nothing but a little bad English that can easily be fixed up. So we don't teach English efficiently as a second language. It's up to creative teachers to find a way to get through to students. The first-grade teacher said she sometimes has to resort to sign language to get the students to understand English.

Some of us really don't want things to change. I was recently told about an administrator at the Ministry of Education who announced that she wasn't bothered by the low pass rates in CXC maths and English. If everybody passed those subjects, who would be her helper and her daughter's helper? The oppression must continue from generation to generation.

This woman has such little respect for household workers! She doesn't understand that a literate and numerate employee is an asset. In other societies, skilled domestic staff are paid decent wages. But this educator prefers low-skill workers she can underpay. And she doesn't mind if dem chat bad. Dem must just work out dem soul case fi nutten.

Bad hair and bad talking have a lot in common. Bad hair isn't just coloured hair worn in the wrong style. Bad hair grows up and out. Not down. It's black people's hair. The same black people who talk bad. Instead of policing hair, our schools should be making sure that all students know the language of instruction. It's what's in the children's heads that matters. Not what's on them.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and