School Where creativity goes to die
Image: Labpluto123 / CC BY-SA 3.0

Earlier this month I was more than amazed that a southern Utah school principal told Native American second-grade student Jakobe Sanden he could not sport a Mohawk haircut because his creativity distracted the other students.

“We had the students that weren’t used to it,” Arrowhead principal Susan Harrah told Fox affiliate KSTU. “They had called that out. So the teacher brought the student to my attention.”

Really? Second-graders had a say in this young man’s hairstyle? I have my doubts. In fact, I’m pretty sure the teachers and the principal at Arrowhead Elementary School in Santa Clara did not like the creativity this child was exhibiting. Next thing you know, he’d bring a clock he built for science class to campus.

I have never once heard of a child complain that a classmate’s choice of hairstyle or clothing was distracting. Was there a security risk with his choice of coiffure?

What’s wrong with a creative hairstyle, especially when it reflects pride in one’s heritage?

I asked my friend Conor to weigh in after noticing a photo of his adorable four-year-old with a Mohawk recently on Facebook.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous!” Conor wrote me. “Declan asked for a Mohawk 5 months ago, so I let him – I think it’s cool that a young boy wants to express himself and begin to find his identity. With the Native American boy it’s even more relevant because he is expressing his identity through his cultural roots! I’m actually outraged at these ignorant SOB’s. This is him expressing himself and taking pride in his heritage. I’m curious if a young boy dressed in a white collared shirt, with black slacks and a badge with the words “young elder Johnson” and a bible in his right hand, proselytizing everyone within a 10 foot radius would be met with the same bureaucratic nonsense?”

Conor speaks his mind eloquently and has two imaginative children with his wife, Taylor.

While parents mostly encourage the creativity in their children, it seems to me that ideas are quickly squashed in public schools. Studies show that teachers overwhelmingly discriminate against creative students, favoring their classmates who stick with the program.

One study noted that “even if children are lucky enough to have a teacher receptive to their ideas, standardized testing and other programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (a program whose very designation is opposed to nonlinear creative thinking) make sure children’s minds are not on the “wrong” path, even though adults’ accomplishments are linked far more strongly to their creativity than their IQ.”

It’s ironic that even as children are taught about the accomplishments of the world’s most innovative minds, their own creativity is being stomped upon.

When my son Samuel was in fourth grade, he was asked by his teacher to write a creative story and that the story could be about anything he wanted, no holds barred.

My child (who was in the Gifted and Talented Education program—silly name. Let’s just say he was smart.) wrote a gruesome, Stephen King-style story about Santa and his elves. Not my cup of tea, but it was pretty funny. The teacher and principal however were not so taken with my son’s creative writing. They were considering suspending him because of the violence in his writing—after telling him he could write anything he wanted!

Of course, this Mama Bear is also a writer and marched into that school and had words with said administrators. My poor son was afraid and humiliated by his teacher’s about-face. This was a kid who did everything the teachers asked of him. He was an almost perfect student. In the end, the teachers warned him to never write about ridiculous violence (Santa and the elves have a bloody shootout—as if that’s going to happen).

School Where creativity goes to die
Samuel with creative hairstyle on a break from school in Zion National Park.

And he never did.

He did, however, have creative parents who pushed both him and his sister to reach for the stars, to be inventive, and if they had a talent for the arts, to go for it big time.

He eventually became a high school debater—one of the top extemporaneous debaters in the country—and received academic scholarships to a top university. Now at 31, he is closing in on earning his PhD. and teaches political science classes to students at UBC in Vancouver, Canada.

Oh, and his hair. He has long, blondish dreadlocks that his sister styled into sculpted ropes of hair, and his students don’t ever tell him his hairstyle is distracting. Hopefully young Jakobe stays strong and continues to be creative, remembering that people such as Steve Jobs and Picasso probably weren’t like the other kids in school either.

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