Long Hair

Excerpt from memoir to come: The Soviet Union and Lincoln County USA

My first run-in with the Board of Education was over the all-important issue of hair length. It was my first semester teaching at Duval. It was track season and the coach kicked a boy off the team for having long hair. The boy needed to be part of a group. He needed acceptance. He had had enough rejection already. I talked to the coach about it and told him my oldest son had long hair and wanted  to go out for sports teams at Duval. The coach told me that he was boss and that my son wouldn’t play for him if his hair was long.

Linda and I wrote a letter to the superintendent of Lincoln County Schools about the long hair policy of the coach. A week later I saw a copy of our letter posted in the men’s lounge at Duval. It was also posted in the coach’s office and in the field house. No doubt posting the letter was to ridicule and humiliate us and our oldest son Jeff Pellegrin, who by the way was a darned good athlete.

I was hired in January and fired in April. Well, not fired on the spot. A letter came telling me I would not be rehired for the next year. I was stunned. I didn’t know that all non-tenured teachers got the same letter. This opened up jobs that the highly politicized school administrators could give to a relative or political friend. If they couldn’t find relatives or friends with the proper teaching credentials by August they would then re-hire the un-tenured teacher.

Come August I had not been re-hired. I called the new superintendant and asked why. He told me it was because I was not loyal. I guess our letter about the hair issue was disloyalty.

In the mean-time I had a conversation with a friend who was on the board of education in a nearby county. She told me that the principal at my school who was recommending that I not be rehired, had recently resigned from being a junior high counselor the day after two girls took a lie detector test.

I went to Duval in August and asked the newly appointed principal if I was going to be re-hired. He said he didn’t think so. I told him that the previous principal was a child molester and that if I was fired I was taking him with me. Why, there was nothing in his record about molesting junior high girls. Of course there wasn’t.

A combination of my blackmail and a meeting with the board of education worked. The newly arrived Jesuit priests and a few friends gathered at a board meeting to help me get my job back. Parents of two of my students showed up and testified in my behalf. The mother was a sister to one of the board members. I got my job back. I am always grateful for those parents who first stood up for me. That flap was the first of the three times the political bosses tried to fire me.

Within a year the rule that led to my trouble was changed by state law. If school systems didn’t have someone else to give the job to by April they had to re-hire the non-tenured teacher.

Here is the letter:

March 23, 1977

Larry Wilkerson

Superintendent, Board of Education

Lincoln County Schools

Hamlin, West Virginia 25523

Dear Mr. Wilkerson:

We are writing this letter as parents of a boy and a girl presently in Lincoln County schools. Although we think that there is a woeful lack of opportunities for girls in our schools, our complaint involves discrimination against boys that is, in a legal sense, based on sex.

Boys in at least one high school have been told that they cannot run on the track team or play basketball if they have long hair while no such rule is exercised against the girls. Our son’s hair is relatively long and he wants very much to play sports in high school. We don’t think it is fair to make him cut his hair, which he must wear at the approved length in the other 95% of his life that is outside sports, just to play on the team. The coach who made this rule said that if anyone tried to do anything about it he would see to it that the boy involved would never get to play.

We think the hair length rule is arbitrary, reflects a value obviously not shared by those who will have to cut their hair, is discrimination based on sex, and infringes on the personal liberty and values of athletes in our school system.

We hope that policy can be made county wide that will protect the rights of our children to wear their hair at whatever length they and their parents approve.

Sincerely yours,

Julian and Linda Martin

[1] See Appendix for this letter.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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