Like their identical school uniforms, Marshallese girls wear their hair exactly the same. With only two exceptions among all of my 80 or so female students, every girl has long, beautiful black hair framing her face. Some hair is sleek and soft; some is thicker. Some girls wear it long and straight; others twist it and tie it in a knot (literally). Others put it up, holding it in place with a comb or a hair elastic or a pencil. On Sundays I see my students in church with flowers in their hair, freshly picked plumeria with their delicate fragrance, or silk flowers, or flowers made of woven pandanus fibers.
Men’s hair is an entirely different matter. Like other species in which the male has more interesting plumage, Marshallese men’s hairstyles vary widely. Men too have uniformly black hair atop faces in handsome shades of brown. But almost always there’s a spot of hair somewhere growing long: either a single rat-tail at the back of the neck, towards the side, or a little tuft on top. (When we studied a story about robot spacecraft in our textbook, one student claimed his topknot was an antenna made of hair.) Sometimes the men grow matching tails like horns, starting in front and combed back. Some men have their hair close-cropped halfway up their head, then the top of their hair grows long into a ponytail. Often there are letters or shapes or symbols etched into the short hair on the sides or top of their heads.
In America, the triangular-shaped colorful kerchief is a girl’s hair accessory from the ‘70s. Here, it’s common for boys to wear it. It took me until April to figure out that the kerchief hides their Ipod ear buds so they can listen to music in class without the ribelle teacher figuring it out.
Here are a few explanations from my students’ journals:
“Marshallese boys’ hair is great. If you have a tail they will say you are real boy. They use their tail for fishing girls.”
“Some Marshallese girls tie their hair with flowers and other girls stuff. They do these to amaze boys. Some Marshallese boys make their tail so long that the wind can blow it like a flag. Boys do these to amaze girls.”
“[Some Marshallese] boys that had long hair make a promise to someone that they won’t cut their hair until their friend comes back.”
One student wrote me a note after a particularly drastic haircut: “Ms. Marci, I want to change my assigned seat. I just got haircut and I scared to sit in front row.” I replied, “I think it looks terrific, but I understand. Take row 6, seat 4."