Nico Hendriks' drama teacher called him out of class the other day with an urgent question: Would he like to play the young soldier in the school production of Clybourne Park?
Nico nodded, grinning. He had auditioned for the part, but it had gone to a senior.
Now that boy was out of the show (something about leaving campus without permission) and Nico was in.
"Do you know what I'm going to ask you next?" asked his teacher, Erica Sutherlin.
He knew. To play the role, he would have cut his hair.
Nico is 14, a freshman at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High. His wheat-colored curls fanned around his face, spilled across his slight shoulders and stretched to the middle of his back. His hair was what people saw first, and the way they remembered him. He hadn't had it cut since kindergarten.
He ran to the bathroom and texted his mom.
"Wow! Congrats!" Cindy Hendriks wrote back. "Can't you wear a wig?"
His hair was too heavy; he had to slick it under an Army cap. Or maybe his teacher was testing him. How much was he willing to sacrifice?
He wanted, so badly, to be the soldier. But without his hair, would he still be Nico?
• • •
In his first role on stage, when he was 10, Nico played a pimple.
Everyone clapped. Strangers called him a star.
Since then, he has been determined to be an actor.
Last year, he was the lead in his middle school musical, Dr. Horrible. At the state's thespian competition, his solo won Critic's Choice. Teenagers from across Florida stormed him at the hotel, congratulating him.
"Everyone recognized me," said Nico, "because of my hair."
When he was little, he just didn't want to get it cut. His parents, clean-cut real estate agents, didn't mind.
Soon, his hair became his signature. Kids called him "Curly." Girls ran their fingers through his thick mane.
"It's always been a part of me," Nico said. "It's just who I am."
All the roles he went for lent themselves to long locks: a scruffy newsboy, a cartoon kid, a crazed scientist. He had always pictured his 30-something self with a long ponytail, flying on a high wire, playing his dream role: Peter Pan.
But the young soldier in Clybourne Park, who was returning home from World War II, had to be closely shorn.
Nico lay awake that night, agonizing, twirling his curls.
So much had changed in the last year: He had enrolled in a new school, left behind his old friends and grown 4 inches. His voice had dropped an octave.
He was already struggling with this new self. How could he give up his hair?
• • •
"What about this one? That style would look good on you. Do you like it?" Nico's mom asked Monday after school, showing him another photo on her phone.
They were at Salon Lofts.
He was going to do this.
"I don't like any of them," Nico said, shaking his head. "I don't like short hair."
His dad, Paul, laughed. Stylist Austin Eisenhardt snapped a black cape around Nico's shoulders.
"If I didn't know why you were doing this, I'd make you go away and think about it," the stylist said. "It's going to be such a big change."
Nico stared at himself in the mirror.
"It's going to look good," said his mom, wiping her eyes.
The stylist sectioned Nico's hair, then pulled out the scissors.
Nico held his breath.
"Oh my god!" cried his dad. "Who is that?"
• • •
There was no time for self-pity, no time to ponder his decision, no time, even, to get used to his reflection. As soon as the stylist slathered on gel, Nico had to go to rehearsal.
Eisenhardt promised to ship his hair to Locks of Love. Soon, he said, "someone else will be wearing all your curls."
Nico's mom snapped some pictures, then drove Nico to school.
When he walked through the theater door, all the actors started squealing. "What happened to you?" "Look at that!" "Did you cry?"
"Oh, you really are taller than me," one girl said, laughing. "I thought it was just the hair!"
"Can I touch it?" asked another girl, who didn't wait for an answer. "Oooh, it's so soft. And now I can see your blue eyes."
For the first time in a week, Nico smiled. "I guess I can't be Peter Pan. I had to grow up," he said.
For all those years, his hair had defined him.
Now he can be anyone.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.