By Gao Wenxin (14A03A)
Photos by Carol Yuen (14A01A)
“At first when I joined Hair for Hope, somebody told me that shaving was just a publicity stunt, and all it meant was just to get money.”
It was a powerful statement to hear from JuneSu Tan, the head of the organising team for this year’s RI (Y5-6) Hair for Hope satellite event. This annual head shaving event is organised by Community Advocates (CA) and is part of a larger event in support of the Children’s Cancer Foundation, a non-profit for children with cancer and their families. For me at least, the line really struck a chord as it encapsulated so many of my initial feelings upon stepping into the Indoor Sports Hall last Friday.
The buzz of razors melded with the the buzz of chatter. Busy spectators reveled in the moment, snapping away at ‘before/after’ Instagram shots and rubbing the heads of their hairless friends. A short walkaround was conducted to gather the opinions of those present. Surprisingly, the simple question “Why are you here today?” seemed to stump most participants. The flat, recycled answers that came through ranged from the politically correct (‘it’s the least I can do’) to the bandwagon-jumpers (‘it was a #YOLO kinda thing’). I had never heard the word ‘Brave’ uttered so many times in my life since the eponymous Pixar movie. The jovial atmosphere seemed so incongruous with the solemnity of the occasion, and for a brief moment I genuinely wondered if the spotlight was on raising awareness for childhood cancer, or the perceived chivalry of those willing to lop their locks off. It was for a good cause after all, but it did feel a touch too self-congratulatory.
Was it all just a publicity stunt, then? I wished desperately to be proved wrong.
But I wasn’t entirely sold by the time I sat down for the start of the day’s programme, a video about the stories of past those who have shaved in the past. I was having a conversation at that time with Goh Zuo Min, vice-president of the 33rd Students’ Council, and I had casually asked him what was his reason for shaving. As the lights dimmed for the video, he gave me an answer that was so radically different from everything I had heard so far.
“Last year, one of my batchmates had cancer, and he passed away,” said Zuo Min. “He was someone who was very strong, even though he was sick, he could not hold his pen, he had trouble walking. Yet he still tried to come to school, still tried to take his final year exams. For me it was very inspirational, because I knew him personally and I knew his struggles.” Many RI boys from Year 4 last year will likely remember him and his indomitable spirit, and there are undoubtedly other boys who had shaved in his memory as well.
In her speech, principal Mrs. Lim Lai Cheng brought up a few other Rafflesians among us who are fighting against cancer. One of them is a Year 2 boy who will soon be returning to his classes after chemotherapy, and another a Year 4 who will hopefully be re-joining regular lessons soon. These stories were all the more sobering because they struck so uncomfortably close to home. It could have happened to anyone.
Mrs. Lim also made mention of the Year 2 class who had come in support of their friend, and how 1/3 of the class was about to shave at the event. The class in question was 2L, and classmate Eugene Jiang stepped forward to show his support for friend as well as other cancer patients. “I know it’s a bit hard on them, especially the children, because going bald makes you odd in the society. But I just want to let them know they are not alone.”
The “odd” comment is definitely something many of us can relate to, and as the event unfolded, it began to resemble a scene after a NS bookout rather than a regular day at RI. Egg-shaped heads weaved through the crowd, and I felt my eyes linger on the shavees among us for longer than I would have, which was strange because hair is something you do not notice until it’s gone. Appearances were something mentioned by most people, and although we would all like agree that “appearances don’t matter”, a young person without hair will likely receive all sorts of unsought attention and stigma on a daily basis.
Some people lauded the female shavees for their bravery, because for many girls a headful of long hair makes them feel more confident and beautiful, and even forms an important part of their gender identity. For an RGS girl like Estee Leong, one of the ceremonial shavees (together with her father), she felt that it was a surreal experience but taking two years to make the decision has prepared her for “any prejudice or judgement that may come”. She was shaving because of a relative who came close to a cancer diagnosis, and although she was grateful for the volume of support she received, she wanted others to see past her bravery as a girl “to think of the cancer patients and the reason she shaved in the first place”. Other ceremonial shavees included the five house captains and Mr Adrian Tan, who told a heartwarming tale of how he fell in love with his wife who overcame cancer a few years ago, and their two children who were born since her recovery.
Mr Tan Sijie, the teacher in charge of Community Advocates, was shaving too for a personal reason. He did not doubt the sincerity of the organising team and the shavees. “Some of them have stories to tell. Either their families have been through this, or they know friends or relatives who have been through cancer first hand and then decided to shave. [Some have] stepped up by organising the event, and it’s because they feel the cause and find the reason to do it. I’m sure that among the 215 students shaving today, there are those with stories to tell. But whether they shave or not is really up to them, because this is just one way of showing support.”
But what about people who might have the wrong perception about the event? JuneSu Tan shared this concern, but felt that CA had taken steps to ensure that shavees understood the hardships a child with cancer goes through and their ultimate cause for shaving. “Hair for Hope is a very large scale event that aims to raise awareness for childhood cancer and raise funds at the same time. Sometimes the act of shaving overshadows the true meaning for the event, but we have sent out newsletters to the shavees during the June Holidays to remind them what they are shaving for. During the shavee briefing, we also tried to incorporate messages that we hope they will take home with them. And earlier today, we played a video where we interviewed three students who have shaved last year and whom we thought knew what shaving meant. They were not just shaving, but shaving for Hair for Hope and they were our advocates to help spread the message.”
There is something special about an event that dares to tackle an issue as difficult and deeply personal as cancer, and I found meaning in lending a voice to these touching stories which might otherwise have been left unheard. But something stuck with me long after I had left the hall, and that is when I realised the answer to my question had been staring me in the face all that time. Lost among the calls for students to ‘brave the shave wave’ and trending in by ‘shaving’ the date was the theme for this year’s event: Shave for the Brave. Taken at face value, courage is certainly indispensable for many of the shavees present. But you are not the Brave. It was not simply a stunt, because your act of shaving is a poignant gesture of support for the children standing against cancer, who may hold their heads up a little higher even if they lose their hair, who are not passive sufferers but people who have fought their hardest and are still fighting.
They are the brave.