I had seen her before that day in the cafeteria – just around school – on the playground, in the hallway. She wasn’t in my room. Maybe she wasn’t even in my grade. She was thin, olive skinned, and had large chocolate brown eyes. She could have been pretty only she reminded me of a rabbit – cautious, timid, careful, and ready to run if necessary. But that day in the cafeteria was the first time I really noticed her, really paid attention to her. Someone at my lunch table pointed her out and told our group that the girl’s daddy had shaved her head. That’s why she was wearing a scarf. I looked up at the kids standing in the lunch line. Sure enough the girl was wearing a scarf folded into a triangle and tied beneath her chin. No one would wear a scarf on their head inside for no good reason. The girl was in line with her classmates but her shoulders were hunched and her body leaned against the wall – whether it was an attempt to hold herself up or to try to melt into it, was hard to tell. Her doe-eyes mostly looked down but every now and again would flash furtively about. She looked scared, sickly and pale – her olive skin notwithstanding. I peered intently and, yes, I could see stubbles of hair that had been shorn very close to her head – almost like a crew cut except shorter and there were bits of smooth skin, too. I was horrified at the truth of my classmate’s report.
“Why did he shave her head?” I wondered aloud.
My classmate shrugged and said, “He was prob’ly drunk.”
Our lunch table fell silent. I suppose we were all letting the information and its ramifications sink in. No one laughed or snickered and we all moved our eyes away from the girl to the food before us. Even so, I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl and her shaved head. Why did this happen? Was her daddy mad at her? What had she done to make him mad – so mad that he would take the trouble to find whatever tool he had wielded and proceed to commit such a violent act? Certainly he had wanted to shame her. What could a young girl do to bring down such a horrible punishment? And this girl was so meek it was hard to imagine that she could have done anything intentional? My parents didn’t drink but there were plenty of folks in my family and community who did and I had heard whispers. I knew “bad things” could happen when a person overindulged; but basically, I was naive and had never really considered what those things might be. Here was one of those things. And it was bad.
How did this happen? Didn’t she have anyone who could have protected her? Grandparents? Her mother? Where was her mother? Suddenly I realized that she had suffered alone – even if there had been a room full of people present for the event. She alone was subjected to this cruelty and had nowhere to hide. Even now. I thought briefly: if my daddy had shaved my head, I would have been so embarrassed I wouldn’t have gone to school the next day. And in the next instant I realized that maybe going to school was safer than being at home. That very thought made me feel sad and sick.
I looked up to see her carrying her lunch tray. She looked too frail to carry that big brown tray. It appeared much too heavy for her. Her shoulders hunched forward so much it seemed possible that she might topple over. I watched her set herself and her tray at a table a little way from me. The sadness on her face was too much to take in. I never saw her take a single bite.
After that day I continued to see her cowering about here and there, wearing the kerchief to hide her baldhead. Eventually her hair grew in although not prettily. It was short and brown and always looked uncombed and ratty – as though she had just got out of bed and forgot to brush it. As time passed I saw less and less of her until she was completely gone. I don’t know if she moved away or maybe she just quit coming. It’s been over 50 years since I’ve seen her but I’ve never forgotten her. I am ashamed to say I don’t remember her name. But still I think of her. I don’t know where she is or what happened to her. I wish she could know how deeply she affected me – how utterly she changed the naïve girl I was. I mean that in a good way – in the way that opens your eyes and shows you something else about the world you didn’t know before. But I hope she never reads this. I hope she has forgotten her sadness. I hope she is somewhere lovely and peaceful. And I hope she is not afraid.