For Heidi With Blue Hair

 Overview

This poem explores schoolyard rebellion as a student tries to find and express their individuality, but meets the challenge of sacrosanct ‘school rules’. However, this is set against a backdrop of personal tragedy as the girl is struggling to come to terms with her mum’s death and the dye is part of her lashing out or challenging an unfair world.

Both her friends and her father rally round her and support her challenge to the overbearing school rules and see her initial suspension overturned and the blue hair remaining.

Mini-Glossary
Ultramarine – 
a deep, dark blue colour.

When you dyed your hair blue
(or, at least ultramarine
for the clipped sides, with a crest
of jet-black spikes on top)
you were sent home from school

because, as the headmistress put it,
although dyed hair was not
specifically forbidden, yours
was, apart from anything else,
not done in the school colours.

Tears in the kitchen, telephone-calls
to school from your freedom-loving father:
‘She’s not a punk in her behaviour;
it’s just a style.’ (You wiped your eyes,
also not in a school colour.)

‘She discussed it with me first –
we checked the rules.’ ‘And anyway, Dad,
it cost twenty-five dollars.
Tell them it won’t wash out –
not even if I wanted to try.

It would have been unfair to mention
your mother’s death, but that
shimmered behind the arguments.
The school had nothing else against you;
the teachers twittered and gave in.

Next day your black friend had hers done
in grey, white and flaxen yellow –
the school colours precisely:
an act of solidarity, a witty
tease. The battle was already won.

Fleur Adcock (1934-)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Adcock is a New Zealander, but with strong UK roots. She spent her early childhood in the UK and would return at 31 after two ill-fated marriages with two other Kiwi writers. Her first poetry was first published shortly afterwards in 1964.

Initially her poetry is considered to follow a classical style, but by the time she writes this poem (in the 1980s) she had begun to experiment with a less rigid and less formal, conversational poetry.

This poem is addressed as an encouragement to her young niece whose life was going through a difficult patch after the death of her mother. Thus this poem is deeply personal and has a heartfelt tone of sympathetic admiration for her niece’s struggle.

 

 Themes

There are several themes here, but I feel the main one is family and relationships. Not only do we see Adcock’s love and support for her niece through the supportive tone of the poem, but also the loyalty and love of her father and friends. In addition, we see the impact of loss upon her as a young and impressionable girl.

In addition, we see a struggle against the arbitrary nature of authority and the desire to rebel and overcome senseless bureaucracy.

Content

The narrative of the poem is pretty simple and one that is familiar from my school days.

The poem addresses Heidi, Adcock’s niece, and takes her back to the time she dyed her hair blue, which led to her being kicked out of school. Although the school hadn’t thought to make this an official rule, the colour of her hair doesn’t match the uniform code and so she is sent back home to sort it out.

Obviously this causes some trauma and arguments at home, with Heidi feeling this is unfair. However, her dad supports her act of rebellion and tries to smooth things over with the school, and calms Heidi down, by making the point that her hair colour has nothing to do with her attitude or the way she works.

Rather than be willing to give in, Heidi provides her dad with more ammunition and reasons she should be allowed to keep it – cost and the fact that it probably wouldn’t even wash out.

In the fourth stanza, the school gives in, partly because of these arguments and partly because of the unspoken knowledge that Heidi is grieving and trying to find a way to come to terms with her mum’s death.

The final stanza she Heidi being supported by an act of solidarity by her friend, who dyes her head, but in compliance with the uniform code and the school colours. Heidi is allowed to resume her place at the school with her hideous blue barnet intact.

Language and techniques

This is a very simple and straightforward poem and isn’t littered with poetic techniques. However, there are a lot of interesting elements that you should be able to probe and analyse.

Starting with the title. The fact this poem is addressed to its subject, ‘For Heidi’, demonstrates the deeply personal nature of the subject. More than that, it suggests that this event is something to be celebrated and remembered and thus is hugely supportive.

Throughout the poem this idea of admiration for Heidi’s rebellion comes out. There is a romantic humour to the description of her dyed hair actually being two different shades, with ‘ultramarine for the clipped sides’ and ‘jet-black spikes on top’. Although this clearly would look dreadful and is a bodged job, Adcock sees the humour in this.

A little side note here. I have twice dyed my hair black (no idea why or what I was thinking!) and twice ended up with something akin to a tangled ball of liquorice sitting on my head and purple streaks running down my forehead and through my eyebrows.

The fact that Heidi has done should a rubbish job at dying her hair shows that it is not the style or colour that is of significance to her, but the act of rebellion in of itself. It is a conscious decision as she ‘checked the rules’. If she did not think the dye would be controversial she wouldn’t have checked, but she wants to challenge the norms of the school and society, even if ‘it’s just a style’ and not a ‘punk’ style rejection of all forms of authority.

Her mother’s death provides the backdrop to this, with Heidi clearly feeling like she needs to lash out or change something to find meaning in the world again. However, Adcock demonstrates the continued vulnerability and dependency of her niece through her father’s phone call to the school.

Heidi hides behind her father to provide her arguments, ‘Tell them it won’t wash out’ and ‘it cost twenty-five dollars’, rather than challenging the headmistress herself. Although the act of rebellion is her trying to demonstrate her independence and individuality, there are ‘Tears in the kitchen’ and a consoling and supporting arm around the shoulder from her father to help her win the battle.

Adcock recognises that it is her ‘mother’s death’ that ‘shimmered behind the arguments’, but this is something that no one mentions as all parties know that is where the rebellion is coming from.

The most beautiful element of this poem is the support and love demonstrated by her father and her friend. He is described as ‘freedom-loving’, which could merely suggest this is his permanent nature to support free expression and individuality. However, we could also read the fifth stanza’s idea that her ‘mother’s death… shimmered behind the arguments’ as being one of the reasons he is willing to fight her corner. Regardless, he has recognised her need to challenge authority and supported her wholeheartedly, helping her realise what she has left.

Her friend’s ‘act of solidarity’ in dying her hair too and risking her place at the school is further evidence of the love and loyalty she has in her life. Remember this is a time where she may be feeling the world is against her, losing someone dear to her, so to have this level of support is really beautiful.

You must also comment on the depiction of authority in the poem. Even though I recognise the logic of having a uniform policy, in this poem the decision is seen as being arbitrary rather than fair or logical.

Without a specific rule on hair dye, the headmistress offers a feeble justification for her decision that it is not ‘in the school colours.’ At the end of the poem, Heidi’s friend’s dye acts as ‘a witty tease’ at how lousy an excuse this was as she dyes her hair three different colours, presumably looking even more stupid than Heidi. In addition, at the end of the third stanza, in brackets, it is revealed that Heidi’s eyes are ‘also not in a school colour’. Clearly it would be a ludicrous decision if the school were to ban her because of this, and they haven’t, but Adcock includes this to further poke fun at how silly the initial decision was.

However flimsy the grounds for the decision were, we can see the negative impact of arbitrary decision-making by those in authority as Heidi is left in ‘tears’. The school’s decision to suspend is made to seem draconian as Adcock reveals they ‘had nothing else against’ Heidi and thus a good student.

In this poem, sense is seen by the authority figure (not true elsewhere in this collection), but seemingly only in the face of Heidi’s personal tragedy.

Structure

Remember, you should only be discussing and analysing structure where it contributes to your understanding and interpretation of the poem.

Thus, although we can recognise that the poem has six stanzas of five lines each, we would not mention basic structural information as it is not particular important to our understanding of the poem.

However, we should mention the focus of the poem in addressing this story to its protagonist. The act of dedicating this poem, to an event that Heidi would surely remember, serves to demonstrate how much Adcock admires her niece and sympathised with her personal struggles.

In addition, you could discuss the structuring of the narrative of the poem. We begin with Heidi’s hasty and bodged rebellious act in the opening two stanzas, but then the weak and vulnerable girl is revealed in the middle two. Finally we see the sympathy and love of those around her, who rally to help her deal with her loss and support her act of defiance.

Tone

Although the poem includes scenes of high drama (with anger, tears and fighting back), the tone never quite matches the narrative. Everything is seen through a lens of admiration and celebration as if this is being remembered as a crucial life defining experience and moment in Heidi’s life that her aunt understands and demonstrates sympathy for.

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