At both ends of the comb, hair anxiety Barbers, patrons survive first 'do


One recalls the fear, another looks back with pride, another just smiles. But they all remember their first time.

"I was scared as hell," said Todd Brunetti, recalling the first haircut he gave at the Maryland Barber School Inc. It was just his third day of school and here was this older gentleman who wanted a regular haircut, nothing too difficult, except for the taper in the back.

"I didn't even give him a full haircut," said Brunetti, who lives in Severn. "I was scared to take any hair off."

"I had an old guy," said student Donald Burrell, of Baltimore, recalling his first time. "It went all right. He didn't say much. I think he fell asleep."

That's not recommended, falling asleep in a barber chair, especially in a barber school; that's up there with spitting in the wind and tugging Superman's cape. But then, the Maryland Barber School is the sort of place where people overcome their fears five days a week.

"I've had students shaking so bad, it's like they just came out of detox," said Larry V. Fila Jr., director of the school in the Brooklyn Park Plaza on Ritchie Highway. "It takes time to build up their confidence."

This is Fila's job, of course. All year round, he takes aspiring hair stylists by the hand and leads them through a 1,200-hour course. For their $2,537 tuition and supply fee, students learn cutting, coloring, frosting, curling, shaving. And just as important, they learn what is known in the trade as "chairside manner" -- making the customer feel at ease, knowing what to talk about and what not to talk about.

"Eighty percent of this business is personality," said Fila, the son of a hair stylist, who at 30 has already logged 16 years in the hair-cutting trade. When he finished eighth grade, his father insisted that he learn the family business.

"He wanted me to learn a trade, to have a trade," Fila said. "That way I could have something to fall back on."

As it turned out, Fila made a career out of it after graduating from Towson State University with a bachelor's degree in finance. He works both as director and chief instructor at the school, one of two barber schools in the county, one of 10 in the state. It's probably the smallest school around, said Fila, who has a class of about 15 students now. Some schools handle up to 100 students at a time, he said.

Some of the students see hair-cutting as just a sideline; some hope to make it a career.

At 51, retired Baltimore County Fire Department battalion chief Tom O'Connor of Parkton is learning a new skill that he'd been curious about for years.

"It's not like I have to do this to keep the wolves away from the door. Everything I have is paid for," said O'Connor, who retired in February after 29 years of service. "I always wanted to try it. When I retired I thought I'd do something that I want to do."

At the other end of the spectrum is 18-year-old Sean McFadden of Baltimore, who plans to graduate next year from Southwestern High School, then go to college. McFadden, whose family owns the Hilltop Barber Shop in Cherry Hill, said he's preparing to enter the family business.

When asked about the first haircut he ever gave, McFadden smiled broadly. He said he felt "tremendous fear. You want to give the person the best haircut you can give them. At the same time, you're scared you're going to mess up."

From the customer's perspective, there is also some anxiety in the act of placing one's head in the hands of a novice.

"At first I didn't want to go because it was just a school," said Mario Ocampo, a 21-year-old Gaithersburg man who had his shoulder-length hair cut the other day by Burrell. "I was just as scared as anybody would be."

But he works in the area, and the shop was convenient. And you just can't beat the price: $2.75 for a regular man's haircut, $4.75 for a woman. And that's without the senior discount. Even if you tip big, it's a fraction of the price of a salon cut.

Ocampo said he's been coming to the school for haircuts for about three years. "I trust the work," he said.

Craig Neus, of Baltimore, said he noticed the school one day about two years ago while he was having lunch at the McDonald's next door. He tried it, and has been coming back every since to have his gray hair cut short. He said he felt no anxiety whatsoever about having his hair cut by a student.

"I figure they wouldn't let them practice on you until they know a little about what they're doing," Neus said.

To avoid getting too deeply into trouble, Fila instructs the students to cut a little at a time. And he's available at all times to check work in progress or pitch in to put the finishing touches on a student's work.

"A lot of people ask you, 'How long you been here?' " said Brunetti. If the answer is, say, three months, he said the response is apt to be an exasperated sigh, "but they give you a try."

Roger Gordon, of Baltimore, walked out of the place last week satisfied. It was his first haircut at the school, it looked fine and he felt in a way he had made his contribution to education.

"They have to learn somewhere," he said.

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