It was after school last Friday. The room was filled with over 50 excited students. There was a buzz. Most all were standing. Some on chairs. Phones were recording. Having waited 10 months for this moment, the room was bursting with anticipatory energy that easily spilled out into the hallway. The sense of community was staggering and unlike anything that I had ever been a part of. Unsure what was happening, other teachers walked in.
All of sudden, out of nowhere, a loud chant breaks out among every student in the room. “Cut it off! Cut it off! Cut it off!”
Where was I? Sitting on a chair in front of it all. Their chant was being directed at me. Or at least at the student standing next to me who had the clippers.
What was happening? My beard was being shaved after 10 months of untouched growth.
This was all so unexpected. In September, I met a student in my third period class and noticed that he had a pretty nice beard. It was thick, mature. He seemed to take it seriously. I’m not sure why, but I asked him if he would consider not shaving it (or trimming it) for the duration of the school year. If he was on board, I promised that I would match his effort and leave my beard in its natural state until June.
It was the second week of school and I didn’t know this kid a lick, but he didn’t even think twice about my offer. Unbelievably, he wanted to do it. Right then and there I vowed to not shave or trim the hair on my face for the rest of the school year. The next day I made it public and told all of my classes. Of course, being so early in the year, my students and I barely had a relationship at that point. They probably didn’t think twice about it — it was just a random thought, an off-center commitment, a promise that would surely be forgotten by their new, overzealous math teacher.
As the year unfolded, my beard got longer. And longer. It was untamed. Raw. I didn’t use any fancy oils. It started growing sideways off of my face. I think in late February was when it really became a thing for us. So while the original student’s mom made him cut his soon after our pact, mine started to build momentum. We talked about it in class, like how my family felt about it. I started to strike up conversations with random bearded men on the street and on the subway, getting tips. I unknowingly joined a club that I never knew existed. This was all unfamiliar to me but never felt strange — it always felt right.
As June approached, I started thinking about the end of the year. What was going to happen to my beard? My face had been through so much. Was I going to keep it? My beard (literally) grew on me. I really liked it. It gave me character. I considered it my “wisdom beard.” I enjoyed stroking it and pretending I was Socrates.
On Wednesday of last week, I knew what had to be done. In a decision that was somewhat last minute, I brought my clippers to school. My students were going to cut my beard. It was the natural thing to do.
While it began as a playful agreement, my beard blossomed into much more than the growth of hair. It was symbolic. It was a physical manifestation of all the growth that my students and I had experienced this year. Like my beard, our growth was of the type that required a long stretch of time to develop and mature into its full form. You can’t grow a beard like what I had in a week — sideways growth and all. Our bonds were no different.
And it’s not like I could take it off when I wasn’t in school. My beard was with me everywhere I went this past year. It was with me before school, after school, at home, on the weekends. It was a part of me. In this way, the hair that slowly crept out from my chin and cheeks signified the closeness that I had with my students. The connections we shared this year transcended school, transcended the learning of mathematics. Like my beard, their stories and histories and passions and pain stayed with me long after the school day ended. My kids took me to unfamiliar territory, like my beard did. In terms of culture, community, and togetherness, my kids set a new standard for me. This is humbling.
More than my curriculum, more than my pedagogy, more than my colleagues, more than anything else, it was my students who were the definitive part of my growth this year. They were my beard. Every hair.
Friday was the last day of classes. They were no longer my students. They were leaving me. My beard had to go.
While I am getting so many compliments on how much younger I look now, I hate destinations. The journey is so much more fun.
I miss my beard. I miss my kids.