September-October 2018

Training Days

The Wheaton barber academy is more than just a place for $5 haircuts

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Trudie Shaver (center), owner of the barber school in Wheaton, instructs student Sandra Mejia. Photo by Michael Ventura.

 

With a rapid flick of the wrist, Ehab Amir rotates the barber’s chair, allowing his customer, Roberto Castellon of Wheaton, to peer into the mirror. Castellon, who sports matinee-idol looks beneath a thick forest of jet-black hair, smiles.

The 23-year-old Amir, who lives in North Bethesda, has a trove of instruments at the ready: shears, a comb, brushes, a blow-dryer and disinfectant, for starters. Self-assurance also helps. “If I didn’t have confidence, I wouldn’t be a great barber,” Amir says, the cape around Castellon layered with locks of hair. “Their image is in my hands.”

Amir examines his efforts, then calls: “Check, please!”

That’s the signal for Ferry Keramati of Silver Spring, a veteran instructor at the shop, to scurry over to assess Amir’s work. “He did a perfect job,” Keramati says. “He’s one of the talented barbers.”

It’s a typical scene at the Academy of Professional Barbers in Wheaton, a bustling international crossroads where all haircuts cost $5. In business since 1963, the school, nestled in a plain-vanilla office building, is an incubator for future barbers. Roughly 30 students are enrolled at the school at any one time.

The state of Maryland requires barber students to complete 1,200 hours of course work before taking the practical and theory exams at various locations throughout the state. At the Wheaton school, full-time students typically complete the course in 32 weeks. Part-timers must work around their schedules. The $6,400 tuition doesn’t include books and tools. Students aren’t paid for their work, though they are permitted to accept tips.

Trudie Shaver bought the school in 2000 after 40 years of cutting hair in Takoma Park and elsewhere. “I was very successful, but I got tired of standing behind the chair for a long time,” she says. Shaver says her mother was a hairdresser in the family’s native Northern Ireland. Shaver took a shine to the craft and began practicing on her brothers. “It seemed to come naturally,” she says.

Shaver says it was never her dream for the school to become a profit machine. The $5 charge hasn’t changed since 1992. “I’m in business to make a living, not to make millions,” she says. “This is the teaching profession.”

Between customers, students seize the time to study. The textbook used at the Wheaton school, Milady’s Standard Professional Barbering, is used at barber schools nationwide. The curriculum the students must master is intense: chemistry, cell and tissue structure, scalp massage and more.

Shaver says she often needs to show her students some tough love to inspire them to crack the books. “They think all they’re going to do is cut hair,” she says. “They just hate to study. I say, ‘Come on, let’s go in the classroom.’ They say they want to eat lunch. I say, ‘No you’re not.’ They just don’t like the classroom.”

She also uses her no-nonsense demeanor to motivate students who need a nudge, such as a 65-year-old retired airline pilot who returned to school to get his barber’s license. When he admitted to Shaver that he was nervous, she fired back: “You can land a 747 at Shannon Airport, and you can cut hair, for God’s sake!”

Grabbing a breather in the break room, student Kevin Nguyen, 21, of Silver Spring, says that although his father was a barber for decades, he didn’t feel the urge to follow in his footsteps. But then, during a stint in college, “one of my classmates inspired me to become a barber.” Nguyen says he discovered that “it’s more than cutting hair. It’s an art and a craft. You get to build a bond with your clients.”

Along with saving money, customer Cody Therrien, 40, a high-school English teacher from Olney, says the personal bond he feels with the student barbers keeps him and his family coming back. “I also feel like I am doing something to help a person advance in their career,” he says. “And a lot of the staff remembers both me and my sons.”

Shaver believes the personal connection is a major reason why the shop remains so popular. “I think a good haircut can perk somebody up who is down and depressed,” she says. “It puts pep in their step.”