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Tuesday, May 13, 2003
By Paul Ford
A version of this piece was originally broadcast by NPR on the 12 May 2003 edition of NPR's All Things Considered. It can be heard on their web site via RealAudio or Windows Media Player (the link is about halfway down the page).
I was paging through my trigonometry book when my roommate Mike said, “hey, watch this!” I turned to see him put a razor to his face and shave off the middle of his left eyebrow. Then, he shaved off the middle of his right.
“How's it look?” he asked. At that moment, Mr. Brown, the housefather, walked in. Mike masked his forehead with his hand.
“You got a fever, son?”
“No sir,” said Mike.
“Pull your hand down.” He breathed sharply. “Boy, you shaved your eyebrows.”
Mr. Brown stood still for a long moment. “When you're finished homework come see me in the office.”
At the Milt, our lives were chocolate and discipline. Demerits were handed out for improper hat wearing or forgetting a belt, for cursing God or the houseparent. Lord protect the child whose baseboards weren't dusted every morning, whose carpet wasn't vacuumed in a triangular pattern. We spent hours each day dusting, wiping, washing, and hosing down the driveway.
The most baroque set of rules was around hair. Mr. Brown measured our bangs to the 16th of an inch, trims could be only so tight, and sideburns had to stop at the middle of the ear. So the more skilled amateur barbers bartered with us, in whispers over dinner, for black market haircuts. Homework cheats for a fade, a buck or two for a quick trim.
Then, late at night after we were supposed to be asleep, you'd creep down to the basement to find a midnight barbershop in operation. The cut itself was done quickly, leaning over the sink, with paper towels wrapped around the clippers to muzzle the buzzing. When it was over, the evidence had to be swept, wrapped, and shoved deep into the trash can. The unauthorized haircuts needed to be obvious to peers, subtly exceeding the boundaries of what was allowed, but invisible to elders. If caught, you took your discipline and never revealed the name of your barber.
As Milton Hershey's social orphans, our clothes, housing, food, and education were paid for by America's sweet tooth. We were charity cases, always aware that open rebellion would mean getting kicked out and sent back into God knows what kind of mess. So we were only subterranean rebels, secret sinners who met our need for excitement and activity with whispers and codes.
Thus we expected the worst for Mike with his half-eyebrows, his open declaration of rebellion. When he came back from school the next day, bristle already growing on the bald spots above his eyes, I was sweeping the hallway. “What's the damage?”
“No damage,” he said. “I went in to homelife. Mr. Nally just kind of looked at me for a while and tried not to laugh. Then they got out that foot-tall rule book, the monster. But they couldn't find anything on eyebrows. So they had to let me go.”
So for him there would be no dishes, no 30 days grounded, no extra mowing, waxing, painting, raking, or scrubbing. Victory! (Of a kind. Of course his eyebrows were still bald.) But it was inspiring, that night, to go to bed thinking that, while the rest of us tried to sneak past the rules under darkness, a short fat kid with his eyebrows cleft in twain could walk right through the system, in plain daylight.