Fifteen wide-eyed second-graders at W.W. Irby Elementary School sat criss-cross applesauce in the media center earlier this month, listening to Rubyshay Monroe read her first book, “Why Does Your Hair Look Like That?”
“Stony unwrapped her hair and looked in the mirror,” Monroe read, “saddened about the way her hair looked. She said, ‘Why does my hair look like this?’
“Her mama said, ‘Your hair looks like that because when God made you, he dipped your hair in black diamonds from his own jewels and he told his angels to wrap each strand of your hair tightly around their fingers, strand by strand.’ Mama said, ‘So that’s how you got those beautiful black coils.’”
The book includes a variety of hair types — part of the plan from the start, according to Monroe. Over the course of the book, children learn why their hair is special and bring their new-found confidence to school.
“I was a nervous wreck,” Monroe said about the reading.
Monroe owns The Rubyshay Experience, a haircare service in Alachua County. She said the book, which now has copies available at the school, was a two-year project.
Above: Monroe describes the journey of her two-year passion project.
“It was on my heart, I kept thinking about it.”
She kept a notebook with her to write during any break she had at home, work or even her son’s little league football game.
“I might have a client under the dryer; I would get my phone, put notes in my phone,” she said.
Monroe, who hopes to write more books, said the book is important for her daughters who are 19 years old and 3 years old; she wants them to take pride in their hair. She didn’t have a book like this growing up. She has watched her oldest daughter and her clients — herself too — fight to be comfortable with their hair, even as adults. Maybe the children who hear this book won’t have to fight as hard.
“It just teaches diversity, to be comfortable with who you are,” Monroe said. “Wear your hair no matter what type of hair it is, curly, straight, silky, long, short.”
Monroe first read the book over Zoom for W. W. Irby Elementary’s reading program, “Bedtime Stories Read by Local Leaders.” Ever since kids and parents left comments in the chat section letting her know how much they loved it, Monroe said orders for the books have gone through the roof. She was invited to share the story in person.
The school’s principal, Tanya Floyd, said the video of Monroe reading to the second graders was shown to the entire campus during the next day’s morning news program.
“The kids just absolutely loved it,” Floyd said.
W.W. Irby Elementary, located in Alachua City, has been running the reading program for about three weeks, according to Gary Kocher, the school’s PTA president who helped organize the online event. The series invites community leaders like commissioners, law enforcement, religious leaders and teachers to the elementary school to read books to students.
“To have somebody that the kids could look up to like that, I thought that was really amazing,” he said. “We wanted to kind of celebrate a local author who poured a couple years of her time and energy into a book.”
The readings started out as a small-scale event and have now grown, Floyd said. While off-campus visitors are limited, the evening Zoom readings are open to anyone in the community. They even added a YouTube channel for the school’s parent-teacher association, where the readings can now be accessed by anyone, any time.
Kocher said the idea snowballed and even though the program might take a break, he intends to keep it going. “If we can make their evening a little brighter, you know, going into the next day of school, then job done.”
Mary Benedict, Alachua County PTA president, said the readings are a necessity because the whole community needs to make sure the children thrive.
“We need buy-in from everybody, all hands-on deck,” Benedict said, adding that she’s shared the videos to other PTA’s across Alachua County and encouraged them to create similar programs.
Even if the series ends, Benedict believes the leaders will return and invest in the community. Maybe the kids and parents will make lasting connections with the leaders. She said the event organizers “have touched upon something so magical.”
Principal Floyd said the school wants to highlight diverse community leaders that students can relate to because they look like them, have grown up in the community or know their family.
“That’s why it was so great to have Rubyshay come,” she said. “Our students can see you can do anything you want and here’s an example right in your community.”