Nine-year-old Melody sits on a metal stool in the parking lot of her elementary school, Serrania Charter for Enriched Studies in Woodland Hills, one crisp February morning. Her hair – fine, wavy, chipmunk brown – ordinarily hangs down to her knees. Today it is pulled back into a tight ponytail. Rendered monosyllabic by anxiety, Melody is gripping that ponytail as if her life depends on it. Her school is having a cancer charity cut-a-thon, and she and 18 other girls are about to chop off their hair.

Melody has easily the longest hair in her fourth grade class. It's so long, she can sit on it. She feels bad for people with cancer. But she loves her hair.

She went back and forth about the decision for weeks and consulted repeatedly with her closest friends and associates. “They said, 'Just do it,'?” she says in a small, tremulous voice.]
Her classmate Miranda, also 9, also a jittery bundle of nerves, says that she couldn't sleep last night. She worried her hair would wind up too short. She worried she wouldn't look good. Did she consider changing her mind? “A little bit. But it was too late.”

Others, like 6-year-old Yanina Price, are stern and stoic. Yanina made the decision one afternoon a few weeks ago when she saw her mom, Kelly Ryland-Price, crying. They'd recently lost Ryland-Price's mom, Yanina's grandmother, to lung cancer.

Ryland-Price was surprised by her daughter's choice. “She's very particular about her hair,” she says. “In the morning, she chooses which barrettes she wants, what style. Whether she wants Princess Leia buns, or braids, or ponytails.”

“Why do you want to do this?” Ryland-Price had asked her daughter.

“Because Grandma had cancer,” Yanina answered. “Because I love her.”

Yanina's hair is dark and thick and tumbles in tight, frizzy ringlets down to her stomach. This is only her second haircut ever. But her classmate, 6-year-old Emma, has been growing her hair out since she was born – today's cut will be her first.

Unsurprisingly, “Are you sure?” is the question on every mother's lips. “Are you sure?” Emma's mom asks. “Because we can't glue it back.”

Scissors in hand, the volunteer stylists, recruited from local salons, take up their positions behind the line of wiggling, nervous little girls on stools. Then a brief, inspirational speech by principal Theresa Wedaa. Then a grateful, explanatory one by event organizer, parent and two-time breast cancer survivor Yevette Peterson.

There is a drug, Peterson explains to the assembled kids, “called chemotherapy” that kills cancer. But it also kills hair.

“People look at you a little funny, even when they don't mean to,” she says. “Because it does look a bit weird.” That, on top of having to go to the doctor's office all the time, and having surgery, and feeling sick and tired and scared all the time, and needing to take medicine that makes you feel even sicker, and not being able to play with your friends as much as you want to play with them. “It's a really, really hard time,” Peterson explains. “It's a bummer.”

Then … action. The principal yells, “Cut!” The children scream. The deed is done.

Nineteen stunned former Rapunzels reach up to touch their heads. The severed ponytails rest like dead puppies in their laps. “I feel bald,” one girl says.

“It feels so light,” another says.[

Credit: Photo by Gendy Alimurung

Credit: Photo by Gendy Alimurung

A grown-up passes out zip-top bags, into which the girls pack the precious hair. As the rest of the student body disperses, the stylists herd their shorn sheep into the science lab to be trimmed and combed and curled.

“Smile,” Emma's mom says.

“I don't want to smile,” Emma replies, her eyes fierce.

The stylist runs a hand through Emma's new angled bob and ruffles it.

“She was very attached to her hair,” her mother explains. “It's a big part of her identity.” Emma frowns, looking fretful now. “What's wrong?” her mother asks.

“The realization is starting to sink in,” dad says.

All the girls gave at least 8 inches of hair, which will be mailed to shampoo company Pantene for processing into finished wigs. In total, the day's lot will make three wigs. From there, the wigs go to the American Cancer Society to be distributed to bald cancer patients across the country.

The baldness, Peterson says, is a constant reminder to cancer patients of being sick. You look in the mirror and feel like a freak. Peterson, who is 45 now, was diagnosed at 38, and used to feeling young and pretty. Then, “Like clockwork,” she says, “at three weeks into the treatment, your hair starts to fall off in clumps in your hand.”

Personally, she didn't use a wig when she had cancer. “It was hot and itchy.” But Peterson's mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time she was, wore one daily.

How amazing is it, Peterson tells the kids, that “people who don't even know you, cared so much about doing something to help you, that they were willing to give their own hair … to help you feel better.” She surveys the group, who despite the fuss are beginning to like this short-hair business. “You have done such a powerful, powerful thing. You are very special girls.”

See also: More Candyland columns

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