By: Annajo Terrill
Yes, I have red hair. But if you read that like an apology, go back and read it again. I’m not apologizing for it. I love my red hair! I love the attention it gets me from strangers. I love that no one else within a reasonable circumference looks like me. I love that I got it from my grandmother. I love how great it looks with red lipstick. I love that even if nothing else is working for me that day, my hair always brings its A-game. I love everything about it! Well, for the most part. I hate that it mocks me daily by turning white one, old, exhausted strand at a time. I say “exhausted,” because I like to think that my red hair puts up a fight at the end. After all, it’s in its nature to be stubborn and fiery. It doesn’t turn white willingly; it only turns white when it has depleted all of its strength. The red is not extinguished quickly like a bucket of water being thrown onto a fire; it’s more grueling than that. Something like Prospero at the end of The Tempest–it doesn’t want to give up its magic, but so much has happened. It has seen too much. Lived too long. So, it miserably exclaims, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown!”and slowly fades into nonexistence. Well, not so much nonexistence as white, wiry protrusion from the top of my head.
I know that the logical solution to my hair turning white would be to dye it. But, irrational as it may be, it hurts me to think of tainting this winning genetic lottery ticket with hair dye. That’s how I choose to look at my red hair, by the way–like I’ve hit the jackpot. Like I’ve found the holy grail of hair color. Like growing from my head is the mane of a unicorn, and if hair dye even touches it, it will lose all its majesty and power and might as well be dead. Are you asking me to slay a unicorn? Have you learned nothing from Harry Potter?
Okay, maybe comparing redheads to unicorns is a stretch, but we are at least similar in that we are both a remarkable rarity. The last I time I researched this (looked on Wikipedia), I read that red hair only occurs naturally in 1-2% of the world’s population. I’ve also learned from personal experience and reliable resources (Wikipedia) that red hair does not turn grey, it goes straight from red to white. I actually appreciate this–less mundane and more patriotic. There’s some sort of science behind it… Something about how a mutation of the MC1R gene creates the red pigment in our hair and causes it to turn white instead of grey. It also gives us fair skin, hyper-thermal sensitivity, and a low pain threshold. I know what you’re thinking; the MC1R gene really did a work on us. But, personally, I like to think that growing brilliant white hair instead of dull grey is just one of the ways God saw fit to repay us in old age for the torment we are forced to endure at a young age. The early years for redheads are not always easy, and this is a conundrum that even at the age of five–on my first day of kindergarten, I didn’t understand. How can kids be so cruel? I mean, I didn’t choose my hair! I got it from my mother’s side! I’m not making it red on purpose, so why are you making fun of it on purpose? To this day, “jokes” of this unfair nature remain conundrums to me. Because believe me, there are plenty of things I choose to do that I should be ridiculed of for, but my hair is not one of those things!
My mom used to tell me that kids made fun of my hair because they were jealous of it, which worked to comfort me for a while, until she continued to use the same argument into my adolescence for why they made fun of my acne, pigeon-toes, social awkwardness, whatever the opposite of athleticism is, and flat chest (which I also got from my mother’s side). Kids in my day were not as clever with their nicknames as kids are today. I usually only had to deal with “Red,” “Little Red,” and the occasional “Fire _______” (fill in the blank with the fitting obscenity) from that certain group of ill-mannered boys–you know the ones. I had never heard the term “ginger” used in reference to red hair until I started teaching high school. I blame Harry Potter for this unwelcomed invasion of British slang. (This is only my second Harry Potter reference, right? Okay good.) Nowadays, the younger generation has to deal with some outrageously creative taunts, which include, but are not limited to, being called bloodsucking vampires who have no soul. How is this a thing? I feel for my redheaded students, because I’ve been there. But I chose to become a teacher after having survived all those years of adolescent school-yard taunting, so I basically asked to relive all of it. What was it Edmund Burke said about those who don’t learn from history? I can’t remember… I’ll have to ask him to repeat it. I sometimes pull those poor redheaded kids aside, and give them a little wink while whispering, “It gets better.” To which they respond, “Ms. Terrill, aren’t you still single and basically working for minimum wage?” Soulless jerks.
I do want to give a shout out to my 5th grade class, though, for coming up with the cleverest of all the redheaded nicknames I’ve ever been given. My middle name is Fern (which I also got from my mother’s side). In the 5th grade we read the book Where the Red Fern Grows. So, you do the math. That’s comedic gold in the 5th grade. It’s also worth noting here that my first name often gets shortened to Annie, so let’s face it, this is all my parents’ fault. They gave these kids way too much ammunition.
Thankfully today, there are far more compliments than taunts, and I’m grateful for this kind reprieve. Although, sometimes the compliments can be as equally baffling as the insults. For example, what is an appropriate response to someone telling me she loves the color of my hair? I suppose “thank you,” but that feels a bit like I’m taking credit for it. Again, I didn’t choose it. I had nothing to do with the decision-making process behind what color my hair should be. So maybe “thank God” would be a more accurate reply? Usually when someone compliments my hair, I just say, “Thank you, I grow it myself.” I find that this response is both honest and usually elicits a few chuckles, which, let’s face it, I live for.
So, redheads young and old, no matter the stage of life you’re in, let me say to you the same thing I whisper to my redheaded students–it gets better. If you’re young and being mocked because of your hair color–it gets better! Or, if you’re older and past the age of adolescent taunting–it still gets better! Because, guess what… Today, more than ever, red hair is becoming a beauty trait to be revered rather than ridiculed; to evoke envy rather than pity; to be in the spotlight rather than hidden in the background, and we are all finding ourselves on the right side of history for this new era!