Lessons from the Barbershop

Harry Backlund

Terence Lee

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“This is the best barber school in Chicago,” says Charles R. Lenox, a toothy, caramel-complexioned man with a Bluetooth in his ear. Charles, who carries a photo of himself with his daughter at her graduation from the University of Chicago last year, has been cutting hair for 24 years. “I decided it was finally time to make it official and get licensed. When asked why he thinks the time is right, he responds with a playful grin, “I like to do hair. It’s fun; it’s an art.”  He gingerly wipes shaving cream off the brow of a client  and, taking out a razor, carefully begins to shape the brow. The room hums as barber clippers go on and off and other students, wearing black smocks and ID cards, mingle on “the floor,” joking with each other. Above the panel of mirrors lining the left wall a sign hangs, stating: “ALL WORK IS DONE EXCLUSIVELY BY STUDENTS UNDER THE SUPERVISION OF AN INSTRUCTOR.” The instructor this morning is Taquala Shack.

“Charles, not on my floor.” She scolds with a coy smile. “Sorry,” says Charles, putting down his bag of potato chips. “I’ll be more discreet.”
Charles, like 134 others, is a student at Cain’s Barber College. Founded in 1985 at the corner of 51st and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Cain’s is committed to providing practical, vocational training to people who might otherwise have never considered school. According to Jessica Cain, the current president of the college, giving an alternative education has been part of the college’s mission from the beginning. With a shock of titian blonde hair, acrylic orange nails and fuchsia pink glasses, Cain brings a bright and effusive personality to the school. Her husband, Leroy Cain, used to own Hyde Park Hair Salon on 1464 East 53rd Street. But, Mrs. Cain relates, “he decided 25 years ago that he would like to open a school because he [found that not all] children after they graduate from high school have a need to go to a four-year university. But in a trade, in a profession like a barber, they would be able to make more than enough money to take care of themselves.”

Mr. Cain, whose portrait hangs between Mayor Harold Washington and President Barack Obama on the north wall of the shop, thought that a college with two programs–a thirteen-month styling program, and a nine-month barber instructor program–would ensure that students receive all the training necessary to work in and manage a successful salon. As it stands, the college has largely succeeded in consistently giving a good trim, buzz, and shave, while many other barbershops in the city have started cutting corners. In 2002, Mr. Cain estimated in the Chicago Tribune that there were, “something like 50,000 bootleggers in operation out there,” referring to the many male and female barbers in the city practicing without a license. “It’s a real shame. They are taking the public for fools, taking their money without really knowing what they’re doing.” Cain’s, on the other hand, prides itself on the rigor of its course load, and the passion of its stylists. It is the only accredited barber school in Illinois and boasts a state board passing rate of 80 to 90 percent–“the highest in the state,” Mrs. Cain says proudly. She’s entitled to boast: the state board examination, a hundred questions total, requires aspiring barbers to know, among other things, the kind of metal that French style shears are made from and the type of spores anthrax and tetanus bacilli form.

At Cain’s, the students spend a month learning what Irene Youngblood, a bubbly woman with closely-cropped dyed blond hair, calls, “the basics of barbering,” before they’re allowed to come to the floor. Irene, Cain’s director of education, oversees the instruction of the student barbers and advises licensed barbers who go back to school to teach. “The chapter that we were on for this week was electricity.” Irene explains. “But we also teach anatomy, shop management, how to cut hair and style hair. There’s just so much.” Students have one hour of theory instruction every day, slowly plodding through the 23  chapters of their barber textbook.
Cain’s warm atmosphere is a huge draw to incoming students. Irene, a licensed cosmetologist, barber, and barber instructor has a great rapport with them. “I’ve been here for thirteen years,” she says, “and I can’t even name any incidents that I might have had with students.” She continues to stay in touch with students that have graduated, attending their weddings, cocktail parties, and perhaps most symbolically, their barbershop openings. “The fact that I can help them–since some of them have come from broken homes and they’re disenchanted with life as a whole–that’s where my joy comes from. When a student’s been having comprehension problems and the light bulb finally goes off, I love that.” Irene says fondly.

It’s this connection to the students and the greater surrounding community that makes Cain’s  appealing. “We’re a community-based barbershop,” says Mrs. Cain. There are a number of different activities that students at Cain’s do to engage the community. They cut hair at the police department, the park district and the veteran’s administration. They also put on a “back-to-school” event every year, which includes mentoring local junior-high students. As student barbers give back to the community, they also benefit from visits by local bankers, life insurance workers, and health department personnel, who volunteer to teach the students financial management and basic anatomy.

Although the students are overwhelmingly African-American, there are some white and Hispanic students enrolled as well. And though the students tend to skew male, about 25 percent of the barber students are female. Kelly Rosenberg, a reserved woman with ginger locks and a piercing under her chin is one such student. She’s been in the program for a month. “I came to barber college because I wanted to pick up a trade, to help others–so far it’s been exciting. Learning the different shapes of heads and the different types of hair–to get it cut; to beautify the individual.” She smiles at her use of the word, “beautify.” For Kelly, barber college is a side project. She’s fully employed elsewhere and hopes to start working out of her home for a few years after getting her barber license before eventually opening her own shop.

Albert Bailey, a tall, skinny man with several tattoos on his arms, also hopes to start his own shop in California. “Yeah, most of my family out there. I’ll probably cut out here for a little while, make a little money, save up, and I’ll be out of here.” It’s been a process for Bailey who freely confesses that he’s been in and out of school since 2008.

For Terrence Wilson, middle-aged with molasses-colored eyes, barbering is in his blood. “I grew up loving cutting hair, my father was cutting hair for fifteen years, so that’s how I got started cutting hair with my father.” He adds, “There’s something about seeing somebody in my chair, you know how they first come and they be all like rough looking and kind of like messed up and then you change them into something better than they was when they came in. I like doing that, something about doing that that makes me feel good.” While Wilson’s words ostensibly apply to the work barbers do in general, they are equally applicable to the mission of Cain’s Barber College. Irene puts it aptly: “…everybody’s not cut out for college. Vocational education is best for some people that enjoy working with their hands…they might not be analytical but their manual skills are excellent and so it’s a matter of bridging the gap between the analytical and the mechanical portion and with [barber college] they get a chance to get balanced.”

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