If you're a fan of Rush, there's a song of theirs from 1975 called "I Think I'm Going Bald." I've heard various versions of what it means, but back when it was written, I recall Geddy Lee telling me it was inspired by a period in his life when he was worrying so much that his hair began to fall out. I admit the song has never been a favorite of mine, but I could definitely relate to the lyrics (and the experience).
When I was in college, I contracted a severe case of mononucleosis; okay fine, lots of students (especially those working too many jobs and not getting enough sleep) have gotten mono, but even back then, my immune system wasn't working right, and I was sick for about five months. During that time, all my hair fell out. All of it. It was a terrifying experience. When I returned to school, I wore a wig, as well as a bandana. Fortunately, it was the sixties, and people probably thought it was a fashion choice: I'd always liked colors, so I matched the bandana to whatever I was wearing. But I was always worried that someone would find out the truth, and I was too embarrassed to tell anyone.
Eventually, to my great relief, my hair all grew back. But by the time it did, I was accustomed to covering my head, something Orthodox Jews do out of respect for the One who is above us. I wasn't Orthodox, but I found the custom deeply meaningful, a way to show gratitude for being alive. I cover my head to this day. And because I do, it has made me more aware of the many other cultures where women (and men) cover their head-- not because they are oppressed, but because their religion asks them to humble themselves before their deity.
What brought this to mind was an article I recently read in the Boston Globe about a Muslim-American girl who has been repeatedly mocked and bullied for wearing a hijab. And from what I can see, her high school did absolutely nothing to help-- in fact, some people blamed her for bringing it on herself by being too different.
I find this an appalling attitude, but it seems to be common-- and it isn't entirely new. When I was in high school, I was one of only four Jews in that school, and believe me, some of the stuff that was said to me was quite unpleasant (including by a few teachers who were not very fond of Jews). Evidently this was considered a normal part of high school life: lots of kids who were different got bullied, and we were all supposed to "toughen up" and learn to live with it.
So we did. But it wasn't easy, and it had some lasting effects. I can only imagine what must be like for younger kids-- not just kids who cover their heads, but kids who have learning differences, kids who are in wheel chairs, or kids who look or act different from everyone else. Thanks to a culture where rudeness is much more open and where adults don't always set a good example, today's kids are often left to deal with bullying on their own, with very little support.
It shouldn't be like that. I'm not expecting school administrators to step in every time somebody gets called a rude name, but it's important for everyone to feel their school is a safe and welcoming place. Little kids will often imitate what they see around them; so it's all the more important for teachers and principals to model kindness, and to teach students from a very young age that insulting those who are different is NOT a good thing to do. Students also need to learn about the customs of other cultures, and they need to be allowed to ask questions-- which will help them to understand why some of their classmates dress or pray differently from them.
I wish someone had done that for me when I was in school. But nobody did. So I spend my life trying to do it for today's students, no matter what age they are. And if you are a teacher (or a professor), in this new school year, I hope you will join with me in creating a welcoming classroom, where no matter how different a student might look or speak or believe, that difference is not seen as something shameful, but rather, just part of who that person is, and something other students need to respect.