By Dedra Cordle
Hats on. Hoods up. Heads down. That is what Art Jordan saw every time he walked the hallways at Westland High School.
As the newly hired assistant principal – he was promoted from Grove City High School where he had been employed as an English teacher since 2014 – Jordan knew that it was his duty to fix at least two of those sights immediately despite how unpopular it would make him.
“It is against the school code to wear hats and hoods on your head,” he said with a laugh. “And not only is it against the code, but it also makes it harder to get to know the people walking these halls, especially in an environment when everyone is wearing a mask.”
In the beginning, all of the students complied with his request. Rarely did it stick.
“I found I would be asking the same people the same thing all the time,” he said.
Eventually, that constant defiance of the rule and request would turn into a hostile attitude.
Rather than dole out the discipline, Jordan decided to give them something else instead – an ear to bend.
“I would take them aside, get to know them, ask questions about what is going on in their lives,” he said.
When they opened up, he discovered a common thread.
“They were all dealing with issues related to their self-esteem,” he said.
Most of their feelings of inadequacy, he added, stemmed from the hair on their head.
“Some have faced financial hardships this year and their parents or guardians could not afford to get them to the barber shop,” Jordan said. “By wearing their hats and hoods, it was their shield against those who might make fun of them for their appearance.”
Jordan said he immediately felt a kinship with these students.
“I know how important it is to feel good about yourself.”
When he was unable to visit the barber when the pandemic was first introduced to the state and businesses shut down to slow the spread, Jordan said he felt like he was spinning out of control.
“For so many of us, the barber is our therapy,” he said. “When we put on that cape, we feel important. We get to be looked at, to be heard, to express ourselves, advocate for ourselves, feel better about ourselves.
“It is a place where we get mentorship and navigate life. When that place, or that opportunity to get to that place, is taken from us, we definitely do not feel like our best selves.”
While brainstorming ways to help boost these students’ self-esteem, Jordan came across a news article featuring Jason Smith, a principal at a school in Indianapolis who gained attention for using his skills as a barber to help a student who was embarrassed by his back-to-school haircut.
“That story really struck me,” he said. “This guy could have disciplined the student who was refusing to remove his hat, but he spent time learning what was wrong and came up with a solution to help.”
Then he had a light-bulb moment – he would try to get a fully licensed barber shop up and running at Westland. Jordan, however, knew would be nowhere near the clippers, trimmers, shavers, or shears.
“I can’t cut hair,” he said, “but I can organize.”
With the blessing of the school and district, Jordan asked his barber, Westland alum Jamekea Norman of Dolc’e Cutting Bar, for advice on how to reach fellow barbers could not only volunteer their time and skill, but act as mentors to high school students.
“That was one of the most important aspects of this program,” said Jordan. “We wanted that mentorship, we wanted someone with an ability to bond with these teens and raise them up by helping them look good and feel good.”
When Norman posted Jordan’s idea and request to social media, Dimonti Stanley and Aaron Choina were immediately tagged by hundreds of people.
“I just logged on and saw I had been tagged in this post about 40 times,” said Choina, a barber at Oohs and Ahs Hair Design on the eastside of Columbus.
Since beginning their careers as professional barbers several years ago, Stanley and Choina have garnered a reputation as someone who is always willing to volunteer their time and skills to those who might not be able to afford a trim.
“I think it is incredibly important to give back to people, to try to make the world a better place,” said Choina, who often gives free haircuts to people residing at homeless shelters.
With the certification by the state board pronouncing ‘Cougar Cutz’ as a fully licensed barbershop – “we believe it is the first fully licensed barbershop at a high school in the state,” said Jordan – and Stanley and Choina on board alongside Norman, Andre Cray, AZ
Favors and Davessa Mattis, the shop opened in late March.
One of the first students to participate in the service was Unique Taylor.
When Taylor, a freshman, heard about Jordan’s idea, she said she was skeptical that it would work, but “really excited” about the prospect.
“I think it’s really convenient to have a barbershop in your school,” she said.
Taylor has visited Cougar Cutz twice since its inception and has been impressed by the results each outing.
“I’m feeling pretty good about myself,” she said after Choina completed a zig-zag design.
Every student at the school is allowed to visit Cougar Cutz, pending parental approval. The cuts – primarily fades and tapers, no beard upkeep or eyebrow designs at this time – are free but it does come with a caveat after that first trim.
“I want them to set a goal,” said Jordan. “I don’t want it to be grade based or have a letter attached to it but for them to establish a small, personal goal.
“It could be as simple as coming to school each day, or turning in an extra assignment, or checking their attitude. It has to be personal to them.”
Since Cougar Cutz opened, more than 50 students have become patrons. Jordan said he has felt a shift in the mood of the school.
“We’re looking good and feeling good,” he said.
Jordan said he looks forward to the day where he sees all hats off, all hoods down, and all heads up while walking the hallways at Westland.
“These kids deserve it.”