The Barber’s Wisdom

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Every six or eight weeks, I go to the next town over and stop in for a haircut. It’s a one-chair barbershop in a ratty 19th century commercial building, behind the laundromat and across the street from the convenience store.

Jeff has three kids. One just got his PhD, one teaches high school physics, and the third is an academic librarian. Jeff is none of those things himself, just a barber with a coffee table of magazines (golf, hunting, cars and motorcycles) for the waiting crowds. Dads bringing their sons in for their monthly buzz cuts. Retirees keeping their hair tight enough to fit under feed caps.

Jeff’s thwarted a couple of armed robberies by just being alert to what’s going on outside his shop, once calling the cops and delivering careful descriptions of two people carrying a bag out of a branch bank. Said bag had purple smoke coming out of it, a pretty decent giveaway that something was awry.

Jeff may not have a PhD himself, but he’s no dope.

Last time I was in, a couple weeks back, we were chatting about the new solar-generation project and such, and he was talking about the things he’d seen change in our area. I asked him how he got into barbering in the first place…

Well, I was never much for school. I didn’t like to read, didn’t like doing homework. My brothers went to college, and I knew I didn’t want to go. But my folks said I gotta do something. So I went over to New Hampshire and went to barber college. Then I moved to Western Mass and worked there for a year or so, and I thought, “I don’t really like it here, I’m gonna move back to Vermont.” So I came back up here and rented this spot, been here since 1975. Never signed a lease. Fella that owns the place, he pays the heat and I pay the lights. Worked out good so far.

Back when Jeff started his shop, a little less than half of all high school grads went to college. Now it’s nearly 70%, because of our mythology of “college for all” and “21st century workforce development” and such. And I wonder… how do we make more room for Jeff? How do we help kids become intelligent, productive adults in ways other than four more years of classrooms? Even trades are now most often taught in “trade schools,” sometimes of high cost and dubious merit, since unions have been decimated and have had to reduce their apprenticeship programs.

My wife is writing about a man who grew up in this area in the 19th century. He was apprenticed at age 10 to a wood turner, and ultimately became a highly talented maker of spinning wheels (along with owning a sawmill). He had what by all accounts was a good life, ten kids and a good member of his Quaker community. It’s easy to think of this as antiquated, but many of us even now are the first in our families to go to college. My own father quit school at 14, probably seventh or eight grade, and got a factory job to help support his family. That was enough to build a forty-year career as a machinist, to buy a house and raise four sons.

Being good in school ought to be only one of innumerable life paths, not the 70% model. We need more options, more definitions of successful adulthood, like the independent barber who anchors his community and sent all three of his own kids to college and beyond.