Excerpt read by Jabari Matthew ’17
It was a Wednesday around 8:30 pm, a week before Thanksgiving, 1958, when I strolled down the third floor corridor of Bancroft Hall towards Ted Bedford’s faculty apartment. He was on duty that night—thus the open door. Jef, one of my fellow preps (what ninth graders were called at Phillips Exeter Academy), had invited me and his roommate, Brink, to spend the holiday break with his family in Salem, Massachusetts. It was the first time I had visited Bedford’s faculty office, a space sealed off in the back foyer of his family living quarters by a mahogany door exactly like the one I lingered just outside of now, in the dorm hallway, an unsigned permission slip from the Dean of Students in hand.
Bedford sat at his desk, facing away from the hall and poring over some papers as I waited for him to notice me. He turned his head towards me with a glance that asked, “What’s up?,” his eyebrows becoming question marks as he peered over his glasses. I handed him the slip and asked him to sign it because my adviser was out of town. Bedford pushed his chair away from his desk and spun to face me, his smile so wide it seemed to touch his sideburns. “Well, I got a deal for you. Before I’ll sign, you must get a haircut.”
Get a haircut? There was nothing in the Exeter rulebook about the length of students’ hair, only that coats and ties were required at all classes, chapel, church, and meals. I figured I had left behind this kind of concern about what Mom referred to as my nappy hair when I left St. Louis three months before. Was Ted Bedford, a young history teacher and the junior faculty member in the dorm, making up his own rules? I looked around distractedly for a moment, and considered whether I should bring up the rulebook. I noticed that on the right edge of Bedford’s desk, the only space uncluttered by stacks of papers and books, sat a framed picture of his preschool boys—hair neatly trimmed, parted on the side.
I decided it wasn’t smart to challenge him on the rules. He had my permission slip in his hand and gave no indication he was going to give it back to me. I knew from previous conversations with Bedford that he was at once the most intimidating, gregarious, and argumentative adult among the three faculty members living in Bancroft. Without much effort, he could have played the role of a lawyer in a movie. I regretted that I hadn’t been able to get the signature I needed from my adviser, a bachelor who taught French and barely spoke to me (or anyone else) other than to say “good morning,” and who would have signed the slip without question.
Instead I was caught wondering how I could explain to Bedford why my hair was so long; how I could tell him that I was acutely aware of the fact that all the adults at Exeter—from the janitors to the principal to the academy barber to this grinning, twenty-eight-year-old, prematurely balding guy sitting in front of me—were white. How seriously I doubted any of them could possibly understand the complexities of my Negro hair.
“The Haircut” by Larry I. Palmer appeared in NER 35.1.
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