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Moment Mondays: “Cornrows” by Lori Sabian

Monday, June 6th, 2011

By Larry Smith

My turn was last. It became clear very quickly my hair did not respond as expected. More vaseline was applied. More rubber bands came out and still it did not obey. We tried our very best to keep my slippery straight hair bound by tiny braids.

Each Monday, we’re featuring a story submitted for consideration in our upcoming book, The Moment, coming out in January 2012 from Harper Perennial. What’s a “moment”? It’s a story, told in words, images, emails or even the occasional poem or tweet (or sometimes a poetic series of tweets), about something large or small, playful or profound, that changed a life.

So many of the Moments we receive take place when the author was quite young. I suppose it’s not surprising that so many of us have turned into the people we are because of our earliest experiences and influences. Still, I’ve been blown away by the intensity and wisdom of these moments. As a new dad, readings stories like “Cornrows” by Lori Sabian (below) reminds me of the most obvious and yet often-forgotten notion there is for a parent: every single moment in a child’s life counts.

By Lori Sabian

“Wanna come over after school?”

As a seven-year-old girl, this was the pinnacle of social success. A coveted invitation from the ruling girl group for after school mischief was like gold bullion. Like a typical seven-year-old girl, my mind raced with he kinds of fun we could have. Barbies? Dress up? Some elaborate fantasy with knights, the Wizard of Oz and princesses?

Finally, school lets a out and the four of us trekked to her house. It smelled of Keebler cookies, cocoa butter and fried chicken. It was small in all the places my house was big. It was dark in all the places my house was light. We ate Twinkies, Pop-Tarts, and cookies with little elfin men, which in my house would have been incinerated. Such riches of junk food I had only peered at in the supermarket or on commercial television. I didn’t think real people lived this way, until that day. I felt so lucky to be included. And ready to fully participate.

Then it was decided that our afternoon project would be hair. Specifically, the braiding, greasing, and cornrowing of hair. The four of us took to the task with gusto. The jar of Vaseline came out. Assorted colored rubber bands, barrettes, and ribbons were on display. Three of us working on one girl produced complicated designs with braids and parts. Occasionally, a tender headed yelp would bubble out of the girl being made over. We would roll our eyes and laugh about her poor scalp, slap on some more Vaseline and continue.

My turn was last. It became clear very quickly my hair did not respond as expected. More Vaseline was applied. More rubber bands came out and still it did not obey. We tried our very best to keep my slippery straight hair bound by tiny braids. All four of us could not identify where we went wrong. Finally, after exhausting a jar of Vaseline, we gave up. The four of us decided I had a rare combination of tender scalp and brown hair. It was lethal for braiding, but still fun to play with. We decided to try again another time. Doing hair together was a rousing success.

I got home in time for a quick dinner and a long bath. My mother and I spent about fifteen minutes washing out the vaseline. As I was giving a glowing retelling of the afternoon I began to realize how different I was from my playmates. I was a different hair color. I was a different eye color. I didn’t have pictures of Jesus in the kitchen. I didn’t have special ribbons to wear on Sunday. Deeper than food and family, I was a different skin color. In short, I realized I was a white Jewish girl and not black like my girlfriends. No one ever pointed this out to me before. At that moment of insight, I felt an odd mixture of confusion, disappointment, and awe.

This is the moment, and its combination of emotions, that fueled a lifelong pursuit of education, collaboration, and inclusion. Because of this realization, differences became a way to connect with others. Differences became the way to open up relationships between children and adults in classrooms. Differences changed into profound learning experiences outside of the planned curriculum. My most basic and yet more core understanding of people came about by failed cornrows.

I still want the cornrows.

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