My son just finished fourth grade, and boy, was I unprepared for the roller coaster of the past year. I know the years ahead will be likely tougher—socially, academically and, of course financially (fingers crossed that soccer scholarship comes through). But still there are plenty of ups and downs right now in the world of a 10-year-old.
Suddenly, I couldn’t set up ‘playdates’—I had to call them ‘hangouts.’ Social pressure was evident in other ways too. What other kids wore and what they thought of what my son wore to school became veeeeerrry important. about how my once easygoing, love-bug of a son went from pleasantly putting on whatever clothes I’d lay out for him each morning to following a very rigid set of sartorial rules. Shorts were the only acceptable options—no matter how cold and no matter the occasion. Spring only limited us further to one option: wacky printed lacrosse shorts. Heaven forbid I asked him to wear a jacket, or any outerwear for that matter, even in winter.
Even more restrictive? I couldn’t hug or kiss him in public. Once, at Cider Mill’s Turkey Trot to cheer on my son and his classmates, I went to give him a congratulatory hug at the finish line. He looked up at me, looked at his friends, and flashed me a silent, pleading look: “Please. Not. Now.”
Of course, you can just guess that last major rule: Never, absolutely ever, do you bring up romance.
“Do you ever talk with your friends about girls?” I’d venture.
“Maybe there’s someone in your class you think about a little more than anyone else?”
“Mom! I do NOT want to talk about this!”
Embarrassment and sticking out do not make happy times for a fourth grader.
Which was exactly why one boy in my son’s class did stand out from the rest of the kids this year. It was clear my son’s friend, a boy named James Luchansky, most definitely didn’t give one whit about peer pressure.
I’ve known James since he was on my son’s second grade soccer team. Even then, James had relatively long hair, already grown past his shoulders. When he showed up to school at the start of third grade with even longer hair, you couldn’t help but notice.
Lo and behold, at the start of fourth grade, there was James again, his hair now more than halfway down his back. I wondered how the other kids took that in, and how they treated him about it.
“At first, I thought he should get a haircut,” his classmate, Connor, recalled about meeting James for the first time two years ago. “Lots of kids would ask him, ‘Are you a girl?’”
Another boy in the class, Lewis, wasn’t much of a fan. “I don’t really like long hair.” To each his own, I understand.
But then the kids found out what James was up to.
James, who turns 10 this August, had decided to grow his hair for Lock of Love, the organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children who have lost their hair for any medical reason.
James put his own self-esteem and ego on the line, with the strong likelihood of teasing from peers and confused reactions from the adult world in order to help other kids who face a much harder time keep as much of their own self-esteem and confidence, and enable them to face the world and their peers.
I gotta say, there aren’t too many 9-year-old boys I know who would make that sacrifice. There are very few 39 year old men who would consider it either.
Lewis, who admitted that he wasn’t a long hair fan, was the first to say, “That’s really cool what he did.”
Connor agreed. “That’s good that he cares for those kids. It was brave because he could have been teased."
Spencer, another friend, offered insight about the kind of kid James is. “James doesn’t care what other people think. That’s good because it can definitely help you through life.”
Indeed, as the school community learned of James’ mission, they became very supportive. Kara Kunst, his teacher of the last two years said, “When we celebrate kids’ birthdays in class, each student offers a wish for the birthday child. For James’ birthday, everyone wished him miles and miles of long hair. They really rallied for his cause.”
In fact when substitute teachers or other folks who didn’t know James mistook him for a girl, it was often the other boys in his class who had his back. “When we went into third grade, my friends were there, so if anyone called me a girl, they would stick up for me, and explain it,” he recalled.
Kunst, James’ teacher called him “quietly confident,” and said he never boasted about his Locks of Love pjoject. His mother, Toni Luchansky agreed, especially when it came to correcting people who called him a girl.
“Sometimes people would think he was a girl, at the grocery store or places like that. He would just let it roll off. But once, at McDonald’s, they gave him a girl Happy Meal one time. That was one of the only times he said, ‘Excuse me, I’m a boy.’”
Just last Tuesday, it was time for James to finally cut his hair. His mom took him to Adam Broderick Salon where they knew exactly how to prepare the hair and send it to the Locks of Love organization. At the salon, they braided his hair into two large plaits and one small, tail-like one for his mom to keep. And then, they cut it off, simply, straight across.
That day, James was able to donate 15 inches of hair.
James had wanted to cut his hair before the last day of school. Understandably, he wanted his friends to see what he’d done. Just as understandably, as soon as he walked off the bus into the school, James became a celebrity.
“Oh my god, you cut your hair!”
“Look at your hair!”
News travelled fast through the school building, with even administrators stopping by to congratulate James on his good deed. His teacher, Ms. Kunst, said the lesson he taught was invaluable.
“It’s good to defy stereotypes. He showed the example that you should be who you want to be, and be yourself. Think how great it was for him to establish good friendships based on who he was inside, not what he looked like.”
James’ friend, Spencer, learned that and more from watching him. “He’s kind of brave and doesn’t give up. He doesn’t care what other people think. I think that’s awesome!”
So do a lot of people, James.