When a DIY haircut goes tragically, hysterically wrong

This is a cautionary tale about a DIY haircut.
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times)

We’re more than a month into the coronavirus self-quarantine, which means things are probably getting a little ... hairy.

I see you eyeing those scissors, thinking, “How hard can this be?” But before you decide you’re capable of cutting your hair or (shudder) someone else’s, take a minute to hear my story, which could be cautionary tale or inspiration (for people who love hilarious humiliation).

The year was 1996. And summer. The time of year when David, the beloved father of our sons’ best friends, would line up his three sons — and any other boy who got too close — for military-grade buzz cuts designed to last them until the fall. Our two sons were part of this rowdy herd of little boys who wandered our dead-end street like noisy kings constantly at war. They worshipped David and would have gladly followed him off the edge of a cliff (literally — he took them all cliff diving) but I was horrified by the buzz-cut look. And we declined David’s offer.


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April 17, 2020

I did appreciate the simplicity and savings of just shaving boy heads into cue balls, but I loved my sons’ longish, unkempt hair, and my boys were young and naive enough to trust me when I promised to cut it myself later in the summer.

“How hard can this be,” I thought, and with scissors in hand I confidently trimmed my oldest son’s easy-to-manage hair into something vaguely presentable before school began.

My 6-year-old son’s hair, though, had always had an attitude. In fact, when he was just a few years old, our son named his wild curly mop “Harold,” because it definitely had a life of its own. On this day, Harold was not so easily tamed, but after an hour or so, I managed to shape him into something resembling a bowl-cut mullet.

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April 14, 2020

Other household members looked mortified, but I wasn’t worried. Harold didn’t look too bad when he was wet, my son didn’t seem to care, and it was hair after all, on a 6-year-old boy. It would always grow back.

When school pictures rolled around a few weeks later I was deep into my work day when a woman who worked at my son’s school called around noon, her voice carefully modulated between hysterical laughter and tears. “I just want you to know we did everything we could to fix your son’s hair,” she said.

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April 16, 2020

As I would later learn, the final photo of a snarling, hack-haired boy was a perfect storm of missteps. My son’s teacher was absent from school on picture day, which was also the day it was my son’s turn to be first in every class line. This was a big deal, because first grade is all about making lines, but the photo people didn’t know that. They hustled my son’s class into the auditorium and insisted he go to the back of the line, since he was the tallest, and they wanted everyone organized by height.

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April 10, 2020

My normally easygoing son was furious. His sense of justice was resolute: If they wouldn’t honor the sacred front-of-the-line-turn rule, they weren’t getting any cooperation from him. In the meantime, Harold chose this day to go berserk, as he did from time to time. The horrified mothers who had volunteered to help with photos tried to comb my son’s hair and get him to smile, but the photographer finally gave up and captured the image of one livid little boy who looked like his hair had been “styled” by demented pruning shears.


We ordered retakes, of course, but I have no idea where they are now. The Harold photo became gold in our family, always good for a belly laugh and solid evidence that I should never be allowed near anyone’s hair.

I’ve since hung up my scissors, but the photo will live forever in our hearts, and, I am told, in the teachers’ lounge at my son’s old elementary school, along with a note his father wrote, excusing our son for being tardy, because when they drove up to school one warm and frantic fall morning, our first-grader suddenly realized he was only wearing boxer shorts.

But that’s a story for a different day.