— Renee Szablewski is a good, churchgoing Catholic. She wants her 4-year-old son, Jack, to grow up to be one, too.
That’s why Szablewski was so upset last month with St. Dominic, a parochial school in Brick, N.J. The principal at the school barred Jack from his pre-kindergarten class because his hair was too long.
“That’s Christian? That’s Catholic?” Szablewski fumed during a telephone interview with TODAYshow.com Monday.
Jack’s early lesson in how tough life can be actually began when at the tender age of 16 months, his grandfather died of lung cancer. Renee Szablewski decided to honor her father by letting her son’s hair grow out so that he could donate his locks to be used in wigs for children who lose their own hair to cancer radiation treatment.
Jack has had his blond bangs trimmed since then, but that’s all.
Changing the rules
Szablewski said that St. Dominic knew about the hair-growing project last year when Jack was enrolled in pre-kindergarten classes for the first time. “I said, ‘Listen, this is what we were doing,’ ” Szablewski told TODAYshow.com. “They were like, ‘Oh, that's OK, as long as his hair is cut before kindergarten.’ ”
Jack doesn’t start kindergarten until September 2011, but during the past summer, the school updated its handbook to include pre-K students in the policy mandating that boys keep their hair short and neat. School officials gave Renee Szablewski until Oct. 1 to bring Jack’s hair into compliance.
Szablewski was all set to do that Sept. 30, she said, and even invited the media to cover the clipping at a Hoboken salon. A storm making its way up the East Coast, however, washed out those plans.
It was still raining on Oct. 1 when Szablewski and Jack showed up at St. Dominic for classes.
“The teacher wouldn’t let him through the doors and left us standing out in the rain,” Szablewski said. “He didn’t do anything wrong, and he’s the victim here.”
On that point, Szablewski and the Diocese of Trenton, which runs St. Dominic’s, are in total agreement.
“This child has done nothing wrong,” the diocese said in a statement. “This matter is between the parent and the school, and the partnership between the two entities that is critical to a healthy and successful educational experience at St. Dominic School.”
The Diocese, which declined an interview request, went on in the statement to blame Jack’s mother for the situation.
“The Szablewski child is completely innocent in this matter,” the statement read.
Crisis of faith?
Szablewski said that because her husband has a new job, she asked to meet with the principal after school hours to discuss the situation, but the school would not accommodate the request. She said she did speak with the vice principal about the matter at length.
“She told me it was our decision to make our son different, which I found repulsive,” Szablewski said. “My last words to her were, ‘What would Jesus do?’ ”
The entire episode has shaken Szablewski’s faith in the Catholic education system, but her resolve and her love of the church itself remain strong. She said that Jack’s hair is still long, and will be cut in the coming weeks so that it can be donated, as always intended, to children who need it.
“I love my church, but this isn’t about the church. It’s about the authority and power and power abuse,” she said. “I honestly think that my son has been totally branded by the Diocese of Trenton. I don’t think I’ll be able to get him into any Catholic school.”
Jack’s father wants him to go back to St. Dominic, but Renee Szablewski isn’t sure that’s a good idea. She’s fears that Jack, who knows very little about his parent’s disagreement with the school, would be treated differently.
He’s already been called names like “Joe Dirt” and “Fabio” by people online.
“His name is Jack, not Fabio,” Renee Szablewski said. “This is not about Jack’s hair. It’s about the [school]. I honestly feel they are not worthy to have us there.”