At the hair stylist academy in Rockville, will the first cut be the bleakest?


Kylie Barrera, 19, a student at the Hair Expressions Academy in Rockville, Md. She's learning to be a hair stylist. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist June 8

The closest you can get to donating your body to science without having to actually be, you know, dead is to get your hair cut at a barber college.

Granted, the Hair Expressions Academy in Rockville doesn’t train barbers — it trains stylists — but you get my point: Whether you’re learning to become a surgeon, an airline pilot or a hair dresser, you have to practice somehow.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But while you can’t cadge a cheaper airline ticket because your pilot is landing his first 777, or get a discount on your medical bill because your surgeon is resecting her first kidney, you can save money at a hair-dressing school. And not only will you save money, you will help with the advancement of knowledge. In my case, I was helping advance Kylie Barrera’s knowledge.

Kylie is a 19-year-old student at Hair Expressions. After graduating last year from Richard Montgomery High School — and briefly considering careers as disparate as school teacher and police officer — she decided to pick up the scissors.

“I need something hands-on,” she says as she ties a smock behind my neck. “I’m very creative. I needed an outlet, rather than sitting in a classroom all day.”

Of course, Kylie still spends part of the day sitting in a classroom at the Hair Expressions Academy. She has to learn the theory before she can apply it.

It’s been too long between trims, and my hair’s gone leggy, like some unweeded perennials. Kylie peruses my pate and asks me questions as she fills out a form: How often do you receive a hair cut? What do you usually get? Are there any challenges you have with your hair?

The interrogation over, she has me sign the form, whose disclaimer includes the reminder that the school’s students — who are referred to as “future professionals” — are “not being held out as skilled and trained operators.”

The great thing about hair? It grows back.

Kylie summons instructor Shirin Dehghan to go over the game plan.

“We kind of stay close to them,” Shirin says. “They need to build up their confidence. We hold their hands and walk them through whatever they’re doing, step by step.”

Before students clip their first live human, Shirin says, they have spent hours working on dead heads.

Say what?

“I just heard that from one of my students: ‘This is my dead head,’ ” Shirin says. “I said, ‘This is your mannequin. This is your future client.’ ”

She points to a pair of disembodied heads on a windowsill. The doll heads start with long hair that gets progressively shorter as students practice various techniques.

Kylie had four months of classes and dead heads before she had her first live head: a 10-year-old boy who came in with his father and brother. “Because he was my first one, I remember pretty much everything that happened,” she says. “He wanted it short on the sides, but for some reason he wanted it blow-dried straight up.”

Hair Expressions is a Paul Mitchell partner school, meaning it follows the late hair dresser’s curriculum. Chairman Mao had his Little Red Book. The Mitchell ideology is laid out in several little, spiral-bound booklets. Kylie shows me one: Drawings of hairless heads are annotated with swirling green lines, arrows and grids. They look like something from a phrenologist’s office.

“It’s breaking it down into the smallest pieces that will be easy for them to learn,” Shirin says.

It’s not all about the haircut. There are also classes on the “upsell”: how to persuade customers to purchase the shampoos, conditioners, gels, mousses, foams, sprays, waxes, balms, creams and pomades they’ll need to look presentable.

And always there is the expectation that students will get faster. You can be the greatest hair dresser in the world, but if you spend three hours on every customer, you won’t last long.

Kylie has been at the school since August. She should complete her lessons this August, then take the Maryland Board of Cosmetologists exam. Someday, she’d like to do celebrity hair.

My haircut proves uneventful: no clear-cutting miscues with the clippers, no scissor-nipped ears. The only excitement is when a cowlick is discovered at the back of my head and Shirin offers tips on how to deal with it, like a tunnel engineer recommending how to blast through some pesky bedrock.

With a few more snips, Kylie is done. Shirin comes back and does a little blending with her scissors. Then the school’s owner, Ed Ruiz, makes a few passes with his scissors.

“I charge $60 for a haircut,” Ed says. Kylie’s haircut has cost me 12 bucks — plus a $5 tip.

“Very nice, really,” Ed says as he peruses Kylie’s handiwork. “Very nice. The whole thing. . . . Eighty-five percent of the time people are pretty happy. In a regular hair salon, that’s probably how many are happy.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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