With respectful, friendly students and teachers, my first day of my apprenticeship was pleasant and running smoothly. It wasn’t until el inspector came into one of the classes I was helping with to call out of couple of boys for their hair length. Their hair was nothing you’d call “girly”—simply too long for the school’s standards. At no more than 3” long, these two boys were breaking the rules.
We were in the middle of simple lesson about adjectives to describe people’s physical appearance. Daniela, the teacher, didn’t teach negative words to describe appearance such as “ugly” or “unattractive”—this class was made up of rambunctious nine-year-olds who love to scream any new English word they learn at any passerbyer. Ironically—as we were listing only positive adjectives—we were going down the “hair” list. Curly. Straight. Brunette. Blonde. Short. Long. And then an interruption—the door swung open to a tall, gruff man. El inspector. As usual, the class immediately stood up from their seats, perfected their posture, and awaited his “¡Siéntate!” He called out two last names of boys he didn’t even know since they had been reported by someone else. In front of the class he yelled, “Your hair is too long. I want that cut before I see you again. You’re starting to look like girls.”
I hesitantly turned to the teacher I was working with and asked if I was understanding him correctly. She’d done her ESL training in the U.S., so understood the culture shock I might have been experiencing. She explained to me that there’s a strict and strongly enforced dress code here for boys, something I’m not used to. Spaghetti straps showing? Leggings? Skirt more than 4” above the knee? These aren’t a concern here because all students wear uniforms. Dress code has always exposed issues around gender norms and sexism, but I’d never seen it in this way firsthand.
Although I was aware of the prevalent machismo culture here, I was still shocked that this was happening. Less than 10 minutes of class were interrupted for him to call out the two boys. 10 minutes of learning were sacrificed to tell two six-year-old boys that their hair was unacceptable and feminine. Two words that should never have a connection.