of 100 or so students and teachers, armed with scissors, blow dryers, foil and goop, attempt to perform hairdo magic on mannequins, fellow students, trusting relatives and, yes, real customers.
It is a vibrant and colorful scene. Red hair. Blue hair. Deep black and peroxide blond. Long cuts, short cuts. Re-'dos and un-'dos and daring 'dos with foil.
Brooms swish about in the hands of well-dressed students. There is, in fact, a dress code. Black, gray, white. No jeans, no logos, no sweats, no flip-flops.
It's four-inch heels and skin-thin leather. Black, of course. It's “business casual.”
Most of the really brave hairstyles and colors belong to the students themselves, who volunteer to let their counterparts practice on them. Teacher Lauren Geller said new women students “usually start out with long brunet or blond hair, then it gets shorter and shorter.”
“And more colorful,” added the school's cosmetology director, Chandra Crosby.
Mr. Joe, as students and staff like to call 24-year-old director Joe Trieu, sits in one of the chrome chairs while barber and cosmetology students (“cosmos”) gather near.
The University of Washington business graduate isn't giving a talk about business today; he's getting a haircut from his mom, Thi Trieu, who is demonstrating the fine points required to properly shape a flattop like Joe's.
She knows what she's doing. She became the owner of the school in 1996 after cutting hair for 16 years in a little shop in front of her home in Seattle while raising five kids. Joe Trieu remembers those early days well because, after school, he and his siblings would work in their mother's salon, sweeping and mopping floors, washing towels and taking care of one another.
These days, Joe and his four siblings, all college graduates, are involved with the school. Three of them, Joe, Theresa and Frank, left other careers to be a part of the family business.
“One of the goals in the beauty industry is to make it a lot more professional,” Crosby says. “A lot of people still think, you know, ‘beauty school dropout.' Like, ‘Oh, you didn't like college, so you're going to go here.'
“But it's not like that. It is tough. It is hard. You're going to become a better, more intelligent person. There are people in this industry making six figures,”
Still, for some students, who come from a variety of lifestyles and situations, things do happen while trying to get through school.
“They lose their unemployment,” Crosby said. “They have to go get a job. They get kicked out of their apartment. They have to find a house. Their car breaks down. They get divorced or their kids are sick.
“But to see them come back stronger, to be able to finish, I think they appreciate it more.”
“I think it's good,” Geller added, “that it happens when they're here, because they have a really big support group. They have us as staff, and they have a lot of friends. I mean there are people who come here from other states, don't know anybody and end up with a whole group of friends.”
Thi Trieu says she and her family have the students' best interests at heart. Their instruction goes well beyond the technical aspects of the job. They want the students to succeed in every way, both personally and professionally.
“The purpose of my life is to grow and serve God through helping people,” Thi Trieu said.
“We won't give up on a student who attends class and has a good attitude but is slow getting through the program. And we won't charge them more for the extra time it takes,” she said.
Thi Trieu, who was forced to flee South Vietnam on a fishing boat in 1975, after North Vietnam captured Saigon, struggled in college when she got to the U.S. She said English as a second language was her difficulty, especially when faced with the technical books required for nursing courses.
Graduation ceremonies are held periodically near the center of the school with a potluck afterward. Families and friends fill the room and hallways. Educators proudly introduce graduates and call them forward. Tear streaks begin to appear fairly early in the process. Even though they've been through emotional graduations before, teachers are touched by strong feelings for certain students they grew fond of.
Take, for example, Kimsam Suon, whose husband and four grown kids beamed with pride at her recent graduation.
“Kimsam Suon. I love her,” Crosby said. “She's a genuinely beautiful person, inside and out. She will help anyone in any situation, at any time. Whatever they need!”
“She is the sweetest lady you've ever met,” Geller said.
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