This past weekend, as I buckled my daughters into their car seats outside of a store, I got that prickly feeling on the back of my neck, that feeling where you know you’re being watched. I didn’t have to look far to see a family leaning against a brick wall across from my car. I saw two little girls whispering.
“Huh? Who?” said one of them, craning her neck and squinting her eyes as she flitted her head around like a little bird.
“There,” hissed the other girl in an annoyed tone. And, even though I saw her see me looking right at her, she pointed firmly, right at me, and stressed, “THERE. That lady is bald.”
Her friend looked at her, sort of bewildered.
I rolled my eyes and started to get in the car, but then felt compelled to say something to the little brat.
I got back out of the car and leaned my elbows on the roof.
“You’re right,” I told the hissing girl in the most patient voice I could muster. “I am bald. That’s what happens when you have cancer and have to take a medicine called chemotherapy. But my hair will come back soon.”
“Yes,” said a woman, who I assumed to be the girl’s mom. “We know about chemotherapy. One of our friends had chemotherapy last year,” she said deliberately, moving toward her daughter and giving her an I’m-going-to-kill-you-when-we-get-home look.
The mom’s embarrassed look prevented me from saying anything else.
Like: “You know, people with cancer have it hard enough, and they shouldn’t have to endure stares and pointing from people in public. If you want to talk about it, that’s OK, but maybe you could wait until the person is out of earshot to do it. Or, since I am wearing a bandanna and not a wig, you could conclude that I am not really trying to hide the fact that I am bald and would therefore welcome honest inquiries. I have gotten those and don’t mind them at all.”
Driving home after speaking to that girl, I felt a little silly about the whole incident, wondering whether I had traumatized her or something. At least she won’t be talking about people and pointing that nasty little finger at folks in public anytime soon.
I don’t think it’s too much to expect, even from young kids (as long as they’re at an age where they can understand, like the girl in question most assuredly was), that children can be polite in front of people who are different. I teach at a girls’ school, where I walked around in my little cancer hats in front of 500 kids from grades 4 through 12, and I have to say that, for the most part, the students were pretty easygoing about my before Spring Break I had hair, and after Spring Break I have hats look.
While I deeply appreciated these kids’ politeness, my favorite approach, though, is still from the 4 and 5 year old set, who just ask you what they want to know: “Do you have any hair?” “Where is your hair?” “Will your hair ever grow back?” “Why are you bald?”
And, there are my daughters, who simply kiss my bald head and tell me that I am beautiful.