BASTROP, TEX. -- For nearly two months, Zach Toungate has jumped off the bus in the scattered morning light and said goodbye to his elementary school classmates.
He heads, alone, to his dreary 10-by-13-foot classroom, its windows covered with butcher paper, and sits in one of the six chairs. He eats there because he's not allowed in the lunchroom.
During recess he goes to the blacktop, but plays by himself, bouncing a basketball his mother gave him. He cannot attend the art and choir classes he liked.
What separates 8-year-old Zachariah from his classmates is a wispy seven inches of hair -- a ponytail that is more of a thin strand that falls from the base of his hairline.
But the tail is enough to violate a Bastrop Independent School District dress code adopted this year that prohibits a boy's hair from touching his shirt collar.
September and Stanley Toungate have refused to force their son to cut the tail that he loves. The school board has refused to make an exception to the rule and since Oct. 5 has relegated Zach to an "alternative education setting," reserved primarily for disciplinary problems.
The battle of wills is being fought in court while Zach sits alone each day, taught by a procession of substitute teachers.
In his isolation, Zach is learning mostly about principle and how much it can cost, even a third-grader.
He says he misses his schoolmates, the choir class he barely got to attend and his regular teacher. He also has awakened at night, moaning and scared.
"I've had bad nightmares," Zach said at his home in Bastrop, 30 miles east of Austin. "I dreamed I was in that room and I couldn't get out and it kept getting smaller and it crushed me. It was bad."
But with all the logic of his age, he argues for his ponytail.
"I just want it. I like the way my hair looks."
September Toungate, 29, said she has listened to arguments from the Mina Elementary School principal and school board members, but "they didn't give me any reasonable answer, other than they want all little boys to look exactly alike."
Appearance, she said, is for the parents to decide. Her son's hair is well-groomed, and he has the right to wear it as he likes.
"I'm not going to make him cut his hair," she said.
Toungate said she and her auto mechanic husband see themselves as traditionalists. They moved to Bastrop from Austin for the school district, so Zach and his 5-year-old sister could benefit from the smaller classrooms and the country life, she said.
"I'm trying real hard to raise my children to not judge someone by appearance, not by skin color, not by sex, not by hair length, not by anything but what's inside of them," she said.
Bastrop school Superintendent Paul Fleming acknowledges that the ponytail flap has "gone a lot further than it should have gone."
He has rejected compromises offered by the family of pinning up the offending tail, tucking it under a shirt collar or allowing Zach to wear a wig.
Fleming said there is only one solution, and it is easy: Cut the tail.
"It would be a simple matter to cut the child's hair and fight the rule," he said. "If the board were to change its mind or the court were to rule we could not set hair-length rules, then the kid could grow it back."
The Toungates have sued the school district for discrimination, alleging that the hair-length rules are gender-based and unfairly apply solely to boys.
Fleming said the courts long have upheld the right of school boards to establish and enforce dress codes.
"I think the parents are pushing it to an extreme," he said. "We have 4,100 kids in compliance."
He said a dress code "teaches children how to set by certain rules, regulations and standards. You have to do that throughout life."
September Toungate still does not understand how a small ponytail was not disruptive a year ago -- before the new rule -- but is today.
"I guess I am stubborn, especially where my rights are concerned. I hope he'll learn that his rights are precious and sometimes they don't come easy," she said of Zach.