WALK IN THE front door of Blaine and there’s a head on the glass counter. Heads sit behind powder-puff-pink doors, heads roll around cruddy closet floors, heads peer out from half-open drawers. There are heads with shaggy sheepdog bangs, heads with balding-hedgehog reverse Mohawks, heads rutted with cornrow stripes. There are heads mounted on adjustable metal tripods, heads anchored by plastic poles clamped to tables, heads piled like cantaloupes in the produce aisle.
The heads at Blaine The Beauty Career School, in Kenmore Square, belong to the school’s 200-plus students. Each pupil gets two, fitted with actual human hair and ordered in bulk from a wholesale beauty-supply company called Marianna Inc. It’s rumored that the hair comes from Chinese prisoners or freshly expired cadavers, but Gary Herbert, "head of sales" at Marianna Inc., says his company procures its locks from raw-hair brokers in China and Eastern Europe, who’ve purchased the tresses from poor village women. The hair then gets boiled in chemicals, colored, and affixed to mannequins stored in Chinese warehouses. Despite the poaching, sometimes the motionless models inherit their donors’ idiosyncrasies: silver strands, nappy roots, even dead lice eggs.
The mannequin heads are practice tools: one for cutting, the other for rehearsing beauty-school staples like blow-drying, spooling curlers, and pinning in elaborate up-dos. To style hair professionally in the Bay State, you need a cosmetology license; to apply for that certification, aspiring hairdressers must complete 1000 hours of training at a cosmetology school. Blaine is one of the 57 licensed schools listed on the Board of Registration of Cosmetologists’ Web site; many of the institutions on that list are technical high schools that offer cosmetology training as part of their vocational curriculum. After graduating from one of these programs, hairdressing hopefuls must then pass a four-and-a half-hour state-board cosmetology exam. It’s similar to taking driver-education classes before receiving a driver’s license — except that at Blaine, potential mistakes aren’t fatal, they’re just ugly.
Of Blaine’s six Bay State locations — others are situated in settings like Waltham, Framingham, and Hyannis — the Kenmore Square site is the most urban. Boston’s director of education, Marc Galgay, a jokey man with a penchant for pink shirts, tenderly calls his location Blaine’s "ugly stepchild." A methadone clinic was once nearby, and groggy junkies often staggered in to nap in the first-floor salon’s pump-up chairs. As the oldest facility in Henri Blaine’s 30-year-old chain, Kenmore’s 18-year-old premises are scuffed and worn. Remembers one alumna, who now cuts hair at a Newbury Street salon, "It was so ghetto."
Blaine’s Boston student body is also famously feisty. "Waltham was like a country club," says Galgay, a veteran supervisor and 1993 Blaine graduate. "When the girls bumped into each other, they’d be like, ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ Here, when girls bump into each other, they’re like, ‘I’m gonna getcha, sucka!’ "
BLAINE IS A four-floor chunk of Kenmore Square tucked between a Blockbuster and the colossal new Hotel Commonwealth. The school is marked by signs posted above the front entrance and high atop a sidewalk pole. But perhaps it is easier simply to look for the groups of boisterous students gathered on the front steps — smoking languidly, eating from McDonald’s bags, and jabbering animatedly in their hairdressers’ smocks. The daytime trainees congregate on the stairs like clockwork: at 8:45 a.m. (before the school opens at nine), at 9:45 a.m. after their first class (the first of two 15-minute breaks), at noon (the start of a 30-minute lunch period), and at 2 p.m. (during the day’s second recess).
Blaine trainees are mostly women — in August, there were fewer than 10 men enrolled, less than five percent of the total — who range in age from 16 to 40. The student body is culturally diverse: Cape Verdean, Haitian, African-American, Caucasian, Puerto Rican, Dominican. They hail from places like Dorchester, Quincy, Hyde Park, Brockton, New Bedford, Canton, Salem. (A few are even temporary residents of Boston-area homeless shelters, but they tend to be quiet about this fact.) They parade around with curlers in their hair; alternate coifs, tints, and highlights nearly every week; file each others’ nails; experiment on one another’s hair; and rub one another’s cheeks. They often compliment one another’s new hairdos with kind words that aren’t just courtesies, but the epitome of beauty-school friendship and networking. "When girls walk in and [just] say to one another, ‘Oh, you did your hair different?’ " explains Galgay, "it’s worse than saying, ‘I don’t like your hair.’ "
Pupils come to Blaine for different reasons. Most profess a lifelong love of hairstyling; a few even admit to scissoring off their dolls’ curls in childhood. Since most students get at least partial financial aid to cover the $11,000 tuition, some see it as short-term job training so they can pursue secondary interests. Like Sandra, from Quincy, who doesn’t really want to cut hair. She’d like to cut hair for a year or two, open her own salon, and then become a corrections officer while running the shop for extra income. ("I got in a lot of trouble," she says. "And I want to help certain people get themselves together.")
Those who hopscotch into hairstyling school from other professions often say they "wanted a change." Like Claudia, a Dorchester resident with a head of snaky plaits who emigrated from Jamaica less than a year ago. A clothing designer back home, the 32-year-old wove braids and painted nails on the side. When she moved to the US, she decided to "do something different" and registered at Blaine last May. Clarissa, a 39-year-old mother from Dorchester, covets the flexibility she sees in hairdressing. A hospital receptionist from 2 to 10 p.m. on weekdays, she grew to despise the position’s conservative dress code and rigid schedule. "I felt like I couldn’t be myself," she says. So when the medical office insisted she work alternate Saturdays, she quit. "My kids are going astray and they didn’t care: they wanted me at the front desk," she says with exasperation. "I realized that [in] hairdressing, you make your own hours, you do things for you."
Others came to Blaine because the TV told them to. Like Ariana Mathis, a 21-year-old Brockton resident with a young son and a husband. She briefly studied nursing before leaving school to raise her son. The Brockton High School grad chose Blaine because of its pervasive television commercials — despite the fact that it’s a 90-minute commute via bus and train from her home. "The Blaine ad was all over the TV," Ariana says, her hand wrapped around a mannequin’s neck. "You couldn’t get away from it. So I came here." And besides, she adds, "there’s nothing else for me to do."
START AT THE top at Blaine!" a female voice sings in the television commercials that inspire women like Ariana Mathis. The beauty school’s slogan isn’t false advertising: incoming tyros begin their course work on the third floor, in a sunny, spic-and-span classroom filled with mirrored walls, hooded hairdryers, and lockers. "Basic" is a month-long introductory course in which newbies study skills like shampooing, rinsing, and conditioning, and perform their first one-length haircuts on mannequins. After a month, they move downstairs to the second level, and a new class comes in to replace them; approximately two-and-a-half months later (depending on skill), they move downstairs to the basement, where they begin working with chemicals.
Blaine’s structure is rigid, more like a high school than an institution of higher education. Since hairdressing is a trade controlled by appointments, Blaine marks time by hours rather than semesters or quarters. The daily program lasts seven hours. Running late in the morning? Too bad: classroom doors lock precisely at nine. Since Blaine — per order of the Massachusetts state board — requires that each student complete 1000 hours of training before graduation, attendance is kept by time cards that record a pupil’s entrance to the minute. A 9:03 arrival costs a student an entire hour, since the next chance to enter class is at 10 a.m. What’s more, Blaine allows for only 100 hours of absence (about 15 days for a full-timer) over the course of a typical six-and-half-month enrollment. Once a student exceeds 100 absent hours, he or she is charged $10 for every hour missed before commencement. Galgay remembers one student graduating from Blaine with a $7000 truancy bill.
Tardiness costs more in the afternoon. A student returning from lunch after 12:30 p.m. can lose the entire remaining four hours of the school day. "I just had to send a group of girls home for punching in late," Galgay sighs, doing his best disappointed-high-school-principal imitation. "They said their car broke down. Yet I have a group of witnesses who saw them still eating at Taco Bell around 12:25!" The penalties are intended to teach punctuality: as the Blaine Standards of Professional Behavior manual specifies, "Promptness is one of the most important disciplines that you should develop to be a successful designer because most salons book clients on an appointment basis."
Students also study "Professional Image" — a primer for anyone unfamiliar with the mechanics of hygiene that’s included in the first chapter of their purple-covered Milady’s Standard Textbook of Cosmetology. On the book’s CD-ROM companion, an interactive disc that includes videoed shampoo demonstrations, vocabulary words, and practice tests, question four of the first section’s review quiz asks:
THE BODY MAY BE KEPT CLEAN BY THE REGULAR USE OF:
B) SOAP AND WATER
Although Blaine is a beauty school, it can’t assume its students are familiar with deodorant, toothpaste, or soap. There’s even a notice posted in the advanced-level classroom, reminding students to CONSTANTLY CHECK YOUR BREATH, BODY AND SURROUNDINGS FOR ODORS. In smaller type is a list of possible noisome sources: fish, garlic, smoking, cheap perfume, alcohol, unclean teeth, onions, dirty clothes.
"We’ve had to speak to people about that," says teacher Nancy Baker, whom students call "Miss Nancy." "As a hairdresser you’re over people, shampooing and that type of thing."
Nearly everyone agrees that beauty school functions a lot like high school — with homework, quizzes, and cliques. "When you take a break from high school for a while and then you come back to rules and someone telling you what to do and you’re around girls all day, every day," says 22-year-old mother/student Bianca Johnson, "it kinda gets a little crazy."
Education director Galgay, a freckled Cambridge native who isn’t afraid to show his sensitive side, sees it more as a family. "Even though I don’t have kids, as of [the first day of classes on] September 8, I’ll have 257 children," he says. And so he cares about his trainees as though they were relatives. "Thursday, one of them is graduating, and I know I’m going to be bawling my eyes out because I love this student so much. I don’t have kids, so I really do get attached to them and feel the pride. When they’re not going good, I feel that too." He pauses, losing his train of thought. "But I forget what I was saying because I just thought of that girl and how I’m going to cry!"
Galgay ponders this for a moment, then mentions a new after-school program called "Pillow Talk," in which Miss Nancy will lead students who want to come and talk about whatever’s on their minds. "The staff that we have here are really beautiful people, too," says Galgay. "You know what I mean? They really care. Sometimes I cry — I’m going to start crying now — I really cry when I hear teachers telling me what they talked about with students and helped them. And at graduation, you can really tell the students who got a lot of help from our staff members because they’re balling their eyes out." His eyes are glassy. "It’s so much more than just a hair school — it’s like a family. And that comes with all the good and the bad that comes with having family."
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Issue Date: September 12 - 18, 2003
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