Like other communities around the country, students and staff at the Georgiana Bruce Kirby college-preparatory school in Santa Cruz, California, felt the urge to help survivors in the aftermath of last December's Asian tsunami. They just didn't know how.
Until, that is, dean of students Stephen Royal came up with what you might call a "hair-razing" idea.
"What we needed was something outrageous and quick that would raise a lot of cash," says Royal, who teaches history at the 165-student school. Traditional fundraisers such as car washes or bake sales, he explains, were too time-consuming for students in the midst of final exams.
Royal's brainstorm came as he browsed online images of the tsunami's life-shattering impact: a young boy clinging to life on a coconut tree surrounded by water; kids digging through rubble for what remained of their belongings; an Indian woman agonizing in grief over her dead husband lying beside her.
"I was at my desk twirling my hair as I looked at these photos," says Royal. "That's when I got the idea to auction off my head."
Well, not literally.
Royal's idea was for students to pledge money for the chance to shave off his shaggy, dark-brown locks and the manes atop three other teachers' heads. "It became a metaphor for me," explains Royal, "to not sit around twirling my hair, but to do something for other people."
Since it's not every day that students are encouraged to wield a sharp blade over the head of one of their teachers, they responded with zeal. They emptied piggybanks, trolled their neighborhoods for odd jobs … some even sung a cappella on the street for donations - all in an effort to outbid their classmates at the head-shearing auction.
A week later, the tight-knit community of sixth-through-12th graders assembled in the upstairs common room for the auction. The atmosphere was serious and introspective as Royal read a statement recounting the effects of the tsunami and reminding students of their global family. "Pledge your money to this effort knowing that you will have taken part in the greatest relief effort ever organized by humanity," he said, "and that you are the difference in someone's life somewhere."
As the bidding commenced, the event turned raucous. For $600, a group of eighth-graders that included those sidewalk warblers won the right to shave the head of Spanish teacher Chesed Reyes. The high bid for Royal's head was about the same amount.
The students screamed as the buzz cuts began, reminding the 39-year-old Royal back of the only other instance he lost all his locks, at Navy boot camp in the late 1980s. "Both times I was surrounded by people screaming at me," he says, "but the second time was more enjoyable."
The winning bids, combined with anonymous donations totaling about $1,000, raised $3,000 for relief efforts. Royal decided early on that the proceeds would go to Mercy Corps, an organization he admired for its powerful leveraging ability - $1 in private gifts to Mercy Corps attracts $16.51 in government and foundation funding - and its emphasis on helping children. "It seemed appropriate that these kids should help other kids."
These days, when Royal reads tsunami stories online, he can no longer twirl his now-stubbly hair. But his bald head reminds him of his own small part in the photos that show survivors rebuilding their lives a half a world away.