The Bitter Battle of Shannon's Knob

August 10, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--It may not be the weightiest, most vexing question of our times, but it comes pretty close:

Should Shannon Faulkner get her head shaved?

Ms. Faulkner, you may recall, is the young person who applied to South Carolina's venerable military academy known as The Citadel without stating her sex, which is female.

The Citadel's officers accepted her before they found out she was a woman-person. When they found out the truth, she was turned away. She went to court and, not surprisingly, she won, just like every other woman who has challenged sexual segregation in public schools or colleges in recent years.

But, during a federal court hearing to discuss how a school of 2,000 men will accommodate one woman, the haircut question came up. Every new Citadel freshman receives a one-time, close-to-the-bone haircut that establishes the kid as a ''knob,'' so named because the cut leaves the kid's head looking bald as a doorknob.

Shannon balked at this, but Judge C. Weston Houck decided not to micromanage. ''The Citadel is perfectly at liberty to treat the hair on her head the same way it treats the hair of every other cadet,'' the judge said. That sent Ms. Faulkner's lawyers round the bend. ''I don't think any woman should be forced to undergo public humiliation to get a public education in this state,'' says her lawyer, Val Vojdik.

True enough. But it is not Ms. Faulkner's right to get a public education that is in question. It is her right to get an education at The Citadel, which common sense should tell you is far from an ideal place for people who love hair.

When Ms. Faulkner applied as a non-gender-specific person, it seems to me that she set herself up to be treated the same as any other cadet, within reason. It's hard to argue that a one-time, close-to-the-bone haircut is not reasonable. As one who vigorously supported Ms. Faulkner's right to receive a Citadel education, I am disappointed to see her lawyers now want to change a significant part of what The Citadel's education is about.

It is more than classrooms, books, beer parties and a prom. It is also humiliation.

I know. I was a draftee. Unlike Ms. Faulkner, I had no interest in volunteering, partly because I loved my hair, every follicle of my hair. The first thing the military did to us young draftees, once it had us in its clutches, was to shave our heads. Even before we FTC were issued our ill-fitting uniforms, they marched us into a barber shop where a line of barbers with fiendish grins on their faces zipped electric shears around our scalps, leaving us bald as eggs and the floor piled high with our former glory.

But in a military training environment, the initial humiliation only drew us together as hapless ''recruits,'' undergoing a desocialization of our civilian selves and a building up of our new military selves.

The humiliation doesn't last. As drill sergeants break down the conceits of individuality, independence and egotism, they replace them with a culture of teamwork, leadership, mutual dependence and a sense of duty to people and a mission larger than oneself.

Trainees are maneuvered into solving problems as teams. They develop an honor code that becomes self-enforcing. Over time, as the system forces your body and your mind to do things you never thought you could do before (like 50 push-ups), humiliation is replaced by a new self-esteem of which your newfound friends are an inextricable part.

When Ms. Faulkner was suing her way into The Citadel, she said she wanted to go there partly because so many top corporate leaders in her state are Citadel graduates. She wants to be a part of the ''old-boy network'' that bonds so many Citadel graduates together to help its members make it up the civilian world's success ladder.

Fair enough. Corporate life is modeled in many ways after the hierarchical structures of military life. But, those who want to join the old-boy network often have to play by old-boy rules, at least until they can gain enough power to change the rules.

Where, after all, do Ms. Faulkner's lawyers think Citadel grads learn to bond? Out of books? At beer parties?

Hardly. Bonding comes from a process of humiliation, shared sacrifice, teamwork and a rebuilding of self-esteem.

Military schools don't just teach you about the military. They teach you how to BE military. I didn't ask to be a part of it. But I learned to appreciate it, especially now, long after it's over.

''She will look strange,'' Ms. Faulkner's lawyer argued. ''She will be stigmatized. You are forcing her to undergo what is considered degradation.''

Glory be. I am shocked -- shocked! -- to hear that degradation is going on at a military school.

Well, as Forrest Gump might say, degradation is as degradation does, ma'am.

I hope the good gentlemen of The Citadel will be good sports and give Ms. Faulkner a break. After all, no other military school or service academy requires women or girls to shave their heads.

But, as a Citadel cadet, she is going to be degraded, whether she undergoes The Citadel's haircut or wimps out of it. If the men of The Citadel decide to be vindictive knaves and stick to their guns -- or their clippers -- I hope Ms. Faulkner sets a good example by taking her harassment bravely. Like a woman.

Besides, if her training experience is anything like mine was, her haircut will be the least of her worries.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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