I wasn’t sure how I would respond emotionally to coming back to work after vacation. Upon returning to Noshiro, I had a week left until school started, which meant sitting in the office from 8:30 to 4, wiling the hours away in a meaningless fashion to pacify parents (yes, I’m at school, yes, I’m “working”, thanks for providing my paycheck).
However, there’s enough down time here that the timbre of this vacant week didn’t feel very different from a normal work week. As a surrogate for being home for the holidays, I used the home ec ovens to bake coffee cake for all the teachers. This is one of the foods I bake in America for the holidays, so I wanted to bring a little piece of that here to share with others. Japan doesn’t really have specific “breakfast foods”, and certainly no one’s ever had this mystery substance “coffee cake” before. It was a pretty big hit, except for those inexplicable individuals who have a low tolerance for cinnamon (how can you not like cinnamon???) I also tried to untangle the deeper mysteries of karate by attending practice a few times in the school dojo.
Shortly after school started, one of the English teachers approached me during a quiet moment in the teachers’ lounge. She asked if we had a dress code in the US. This was, of course, prompted by a student flouting the dress code at my current school. What had this juvenile offender done to rock the boat? Her hair was now a Little Less Black.
Dying one’s hair is expressly forbidden for students at my school, as are crazy piercings, jewelry, makeup, untrimmed fingernails, nail polish, skirt hems too high, pants too low, or non-school issued shoes (with shoe trim color coded by grade, of course). However, this creative student had only bent the rules… she had not dyed her hair, it had not been bleached; it was simply lighter than the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. A subtle enough change over time for her to deny that she had done anything unnatural at all (though the school apparently has pretty straightforward before and after pictures). Nevertheless, non-black tresses (not mine) could be easily spotted amidst a sea of otherwise uniformly black hair.
Wanting to genuinely know the answer, I asked the teacher as innocently and politely as I could: “What’s the worst that can happen if one girl has dark brown hair?”
And neither I nor my colleague really know what to say. We both understand that hair color is in this case a proxy for a more complicated and less tangible issue: personal autonomy vs. institutional authority. As a homeroom teacher in a Japanese high school, it is the teacher’s duty to look after her students and make sure they are respectful during and after school. Unlike American schools, teachers as well as parents take their kids’ behavior very seriously, and are responsible for their actions.
My colleague is so stressed out because her options seem to be:
1. confront the student’s parent, basically calling her kid a liar, or
2. fail her duty as a homeroom teacher.
The parent has also gotten involved and threatened to take the matter to the school board. In a country that values group harmony, I don’t envy my colleague’s position. All I could do was tell her that I came from a country where, when I was 15, one of my best friends had a nose piercing, pink hair, and wore lingerie as outerwear to school. And she didn’t turn out to be a sociopath. I hope that helps, sensei.
Good luck, whatever you decide to do.