One would never have thought that the act of shaving one’s head for an admirable cause – to raise awareness of childhood cancer – could have caused such controversy. The irony of having the girls don wigs, when the bald heads were intended to be starting points for discourse and the display of empathy, has not been lost. Whether or not St. Margaret’s Secondary School has been “supportive of students participating in charitable causes” is irrelevant (perhaps, even a red herring). The focus should also not be on the breaking of the promise between the five girls and the school principal, Mrs. Marion Tan, because that very promise, as I had argued (here), is laden with assumptions: the slippery slope that girls are particularly impressionable, and the generalisation of intents.
Instead, we should be concerned with the implication that a bald head is “punk, unfeminine, or sloppy”. How is femininity defined? By the way a person looks or dresses? This convenient perpetuation of gender stereotypes (I presume many took issue with the term “unfeminine”) must stop, because “why should girls be forced to look or dress a certain way”?
TODAY (“Case-by-Case Approach for Pupils Who Want to Support Causes: Schools”, Aug. 3) spoke to educators and principals on this issue. While none of them commented directly on the decisions made by St. Margaret’s, their actions and responses – in my opinion – do put Mrs. Tan’s initiation of the promise, and her subsequent reactions to shame. Three girls at Crescent Girls’ School who had participated at “Hair for Hope” addressed their schoolmates to explain their motivations. The principal of Hwa Chong Institution Hon Chiew Weng said “although he did not feel shaving was the best way to show support for cancer patients, he did not stop his students”. They should learn to make their own decisions, he adds.
That really is moral education at work, isn’t it? With the teachers as facilitators – that is, not seeking to impose their personal convictions upon their students – the students can then articulate perspectives on why they have chosen a cause, and their means of support.
Be that as it may, the next question emerges: why do schoolchildren, especially the older ones, need to seek permission to support whatever cause they believe in. The students could have gone ahead to join the fund-raising event organised by the Children’s Cancer Foundation without seeking approval. They have the right to do so, don’t they, especially if they can justify their participation? It does sound a little silly, having to obtain endorsement to do good things in the community. When I was in school, we were given the autonomy to organise and execute our own service or community projects. Even when we initiated our own awareness-building campaigns, there was no interference from the administration too.
One can understand if the younger ones require a little more hand-holding, but I believe many students can judiciously and intelligently choose which causes to advocate for.
Some might say that schoolchildren are bound to their schools, and schools are bound to the Ministry of Education. In this manner, the students are representatives of their schools, and they have to appreciate responsibility and ownership. Yet, a school is unlike an organisation or corporation (which the young students would have to deal with, albeit in the future); it is a place for learning, and part of this learning process involves students dealing constructively with diversity and differences in opinions. If our bureaucrats are perpetually worried about misinterpretation and individuals getting the wrong message, will our kids ever learn?
It is true that principals have thousands of schoolchildren under their charge, and the maintenance of order is important. Former principal Belinda Charles explains that “they are running a school – that is not just a family of three children, but over a thousand pupils”. But if that is the case, maybe we should stop thinking of them as entities to be (molly)coddled, but start empowering teachers and students – to entrust them with confidence and wisdom – to do the right things. Some feathers might be ruffled, but it will be well worth the effort.