BY MIKE JAMES
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
FLATWOODS When Ashley Keeton’s long dark hair started to fall out in the spring of her junior year, she spent a lot of time crying.
Ashley Keeton sits next to her AP calculus teacher Jeani Gollihue.
MIKE JAMES | THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
She had never really known how integral it was to her sense of self and couldn’t have known how painful it would be to see it come out in clumps so dense they threatened to clog the bathroom drain.
Her friends at Russell High School, who had admired her hair and liked to touch it because it was so soft were asking her what was wrong. She knew they were worried about her, but the shock was too recent and she wasn’t ready to share.
She started wearing hats to school, getting special permission because usually hats are forbidden under Russell’s dress code.
One morning, a couple of weeks ago, Ashley, now a senior, was sitting on a bench in the student union, alternately chatting with friends and reflecting on the day ahead of her. She was also brooding about a decision she had just made — to have her head shaved rather than deal with the patchwork of remaining tresses and the painful brushing that never seemed to make it look good enough.
Her AP calculus teacher, Jeani Gollihue, sat down next to her. Ashley had already confided in Gollihue about her decision.
When is your appointment, Gollihue asked. It’s not yet scheduled, Ashley said.
Well let me know when you get it set up; I’ll go with you and get my head shaved too, Gollihue said. And I’ll go first, she added.
It was an unexpected but gratifying and comforting gesture to a 17-year-old senior who was struggling with her self-image in what should be the social pinnacle of her high school career.
Ashley’s hair loss results from Hashimoto’s disease, a condition in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. The condition is permanent and treatable with medication, but fluctuations require changes in the medication and that exacerbates the hair loss, she says.
She has known Gollihue since her sophomore year, when she took an introductory calculus class. Ashley found Gollihue to be a congenial and understanding mentor, and in her senior year agreed to be an aide in her classroom, helping algebra students and doing other tasks.
Teachers don’t play favorites, Gollihue said, but she remained friendly with Ashley, in part because she was among the minority of students who actually like math. “You have kids you click with. I’d see her in the hall and we’d say hi, and then I took her as my aide,” she said.
After Ashley confided in her about her condition and revealed she would be having her head shaved, something else in Gollihue clicked. “What happens is we have students all the time with situations and we can’t do anything about it. We can’t fix it. As a mom and a caring adult I want to be able to fix things,” said Gollihue, who has two daughters of her own. “I could tell she was dreading it and my mama’s instinct kicked in. I wanted to fix it,” Gollihue said.
Her offer to shave her head was entirely spontaneous, and for just a second after making it Gollihue wondered if she had backed herself into a corner she didn’t want to be in.
But that passed in an instant. “It’s just hair,” she said.
Ashley set up an appointment for the shave job with a wig specialist in Lexington, although now that she is becoming more comfortable with the reality of a bare head she isn’t sure she wants the wig. On the day of the fitting she, her parents Lisa and Bryan — who had already shaved his head — and her sister, Renae, drove there, and Gollihue drove in with her own family in tow.
The shaving was an anticlimax; for both Ashley and Gollihue the stress had peaked the night before and they were ready to go in hairy and come out smooth.
But Gollihue going first eased the way, Ashley said. “It helped that she would do that. It made me think it might not be so bad.”
Even before the shaving Ashley had made hats a standard feature of her wardrobe. She plans her outfit each morning around the hat she chooses. On Thursday it was a teal and navy blue UnderArmor toboggan.
Ashley is coming to terms with her hair loss, She is enough of a teenager to remain self-conscious, but trusts in her faith and her character to cope. She hopes her conduct in the face of adversity will inspire others.
“Physical appearance is not everything,” she said. “My hair doesn’t define me. It’s the heart I have that defines me.”
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