My second grade teacher Miss Quilter had lovely fat thighs. She turned her legs elegantly to the side as she read to us. I was six years old. I remember the imprint of the coarse mat on my own crossed legs as I sat and listened. When Miss Quilter read to us we were able to travel to far away places. At playtime there was a tree in the stony school playground that seemed to talk if you laid your ear against its warm and silky trunk.
Miss Quilter was 19 and had a boyfriend that picked her up in a convertible in the lane behind the school once. She wore her long black hair draped across her forehead and secured with a hair clip. Her hair matched her eyeliner, which made a little tail at the end of her eye. The year was 1968.
One hot afternoon I came quietly to Miss Quilter’s desk at the front of the class and complained. “Oh, you’re wilting!” she said and laughed a little. “You don’t know that word yet. It’s like when a flower needs water and gets droopy.” My eyes must have shown that I understood. “Come here, let’s do something with your hair,” she said, sitting me beside her. I don’t remember what the rest of the class was busy with, only that my dear teacher gave me most of her attention for a long time. She plaited my wavy brown hair into thirty eight little braids. We counted them. Some had ribbons on the ends — she borrowed extra ribbons from other girls — and some were tied into a crown on the top of my head. I felt cool and happy as I walked home, enjoying the breeze on my scalp. Sometimes a hairstyle is sheer pleasure.
In 2002 I was grown up and at a protest camp outside the Woomera detention centre in the South Australian desert. The entire demonstration was surrounded by hundreds of police. At night, the footsteps of the police were heavy enough to make the ground shake outside the cheap nylon tent. I had my hair very short then. I’d shaved my dreadlocks off so that the police had nothing to grab. Sometimes a hair-style is a logistical decision.
In early 2011 in the Central Australian desert not far from Uluru, local women took Claudia and I out to the bush to eat kangaroo. They energetically broke branches off the wiry mulga trees to make the fire. I leaned over the coals where pieces of kangaroo tail were cooking wrapped in aluminium foil. I felt one of the women observing my hair, falling to the sides of my face. She made me my name there, (although I only heard it later) a Pitjatjantjara name which translated to Dr Rope Hair. When I heard about this name I was a bit put out. But then someone told me about a local geologist known as ‘Big Ears’. I had physical features other than my rope hair. It could have been worse.
I’d had my hair combed into dreadlocks again years before as a medical student. I sat in the hospital auditorium during lectures and could feel people’s eyes on my hair. You wouldn’t think that you could feel something non-material like that, but you can. I got used to that when I had dreadlocks. “If they’re focussing on my hair, they might not notice other — less superficial — things that they won’t like about me,” I used to say.
After the first rather messy year, when the locs had properly knitted up, the hair looked beautiful in its sueded way. It was easy to keep clean and to care for, although the five hours it took to dry after I washed it each week was a bit tedious in the Winter. In some parts of the world (including regional Australia), I was also exposed to a lot of people who had never seen dreaded hair up close. “I see, it’s a hat!” said one nurse looking closely at my braided locs. Another told me about how she told her children that they must brush their hair or they would end up looking like me.
Mostly though, my hair showed people that I was an individual, broad-minded, perhaps a bit of a hippy. It was an immediate signal of warmth and unorthodoxy and showed that I was gratefully exposed to a different culture or cultures. Many people liked that. The compliments I had on my beautiful hair were more than enough compensation for the story I heard at every new workplace: about the person they knew (at least their neighbour or their nephew knew them) who had spiders growing in their dreadlocks.
My dreadlocked hair was a happy part of my life. I had a wardrobe of beautiful silk and cotton scarves I used to keep my hair clean when working with lice-ridden children at work. I loved piling my locs up on top of my head to go out for a celebration.
It was hot and humid last August in Tonga when I had the idea of taking my hair out of dreadlocks. I started picking out the ends of my locs, so that they were like silky fanning paintbrushes. I was very unsure. My dreadlocked hair was always so good in the water, especially salt water which locked the hair up tight. Nevertheless I talked to the women on the island where I stayed about the possibility of unlocking my hair. Very familiar with social hairdressing, they took the job on.
A half-dozen women, with a few extras coming and going — some old friends and family, some who had been strangers — worked all day on my hair. They put coconut oil on the hair to soften and lubricate it, then used whatever tool they could find — little dessert forks worked best — to undo the weave of each loc. I had about 40 dreadlocks, each about 30cm long. It took about an hour of concentrated work to undo each one.
The day’s work started after breakfast and was still underway as the sun began to set. There was a lot of breakage — the excess hair under the chair looked like a cartoon sheep. One of the dessert forks was bent out of shape by energetic digging and tugging. After 13 years, my dreadlocks were very firmly knit. That there was fine and silky hair coming out of my head, still attached, was a kind of miracle. The colour was lighter than it had been when my hair was knitted together. I liked it. Lying my head down to sleep was a different experience. I no longer had my ropey pillow. The strength my neck had developed to hold my head erect, heavy with accumulated hair, became more noticeable when no longer needed.
I missed my hair like a friend for a long time. My next working assignment was at Tjuntjuntjara, a very remote and traditional Aboriginal community in Western Australia. There were no police there. The old people still carried great authority. It turned out that the men at Tjuntjuntjara wore their hair, including their beards, dreadlocked. They claimed the monopoly on that hairstyle for their gender. I’m just superstitious enough to believe that the old men sent me a psychic message before my arrival. They’re about the only force I can think of that might have been able to persuade me to change my hair, which became so much a part of my way of being in the world.