Nicholas Dykes looks like a ghost standing in his bedroom. His dyed black hair is parted down the middle and brushes against the tops of his shoulders. With shaved eyebrows and a black Alien Sex Fiend T-shirt, the 15-year-old looks dark and depressed. His skin is dusted with white powder and smoky red eye shadow encircles his lids, contrasting sharply with the whites of his eyes. From a distance, his dark lipstick makes it look like he's frowning. A closer look reveals a warm smile.
The inside of his room looks like that of any other teenager; his sheets are decorated with tiny penguins and he's got band and movie posters and drawings of dragons on the walls. A cloth tapestry of a lioness hangs over his bed. LYNX bus maps and schedules are carefully taped up near his closet. His shelves are full of James Patterson and John Grisham books, and several musical instruments lie on his beige carpet.
But the real attention-grabber is just above his television set: his self-portrait.
"I call this one Charlie H. Christ," says Dykes. "It's supposed to portray a mixture of both Charlie Manson and Jesus Christ."
In the painting, a large black swastika is crudely painted over the chest of a crucified man. The bright colors and wide brush strokes suggest preteen artistic skills. But the subject matter is quite mature.
Don't read it too literally, though. Dykes insists he is neither a blasphemer nor a Nazi. "And I certainly don't have anything against Jesus," he giggles.
"When interpreting my paintings, you have to look deeper," he adds philosophically. "The same goes with my appearance. When you look at me, you have to look deeper to really understand me."
The painting, it turns out, is Dykes as he thinks the world sees him. "I painted this as a self-portrait because I wanted to express how I feel the world sees me. The Jesus figure is the way I see me good. The Nazi is the way the world sees me evil."
Add "frightening" to the way people see Dykes, according to the Orange County Public Schools; so frightening, in fact, that Winter Park High School administrators threatened to kick him out if he didn't tone it down.
"`Principal William Gordon` pulled me into his office two weeks after winter break and told me that he overheard four kids talking about how they were scared to walk down the same hall as me," says Dykes. "He said he asked them if they wanted to write a formal statement about their feelings, and they did. Then he told me that I was no longer allowed to wear my makeup, because it was scaring people and he had to draw the line."
Dykes, who says he never saw the written statement, believes his reprimand isn't about dress codes or frightened students; it's about intolerance. "It's about how they treat people who are different, without even trying to get to know them first. That's always been the problem," says Dykes. "They're just judging my appearance and going from that. Granted, my look is pretty extreme. But aren't they supposed to be teaching us that it's what's on the inside that counts?"
His mother, Jeanne Cottom, agrees. "Nick is an amazing kid, not many people who know him can disagree with that," says Cottom. "Unfortunately, this is just a reflection of how our society works if you're different, you're almost less of a person."
NOTHING TO FEAR
"Why all the black?" asks Gordon Crews, an associate dean at Roger Williams University in Connecticut who studies goth culture. "What most of them will tell you is, 'We don't exist to you anyway.' The black is a way of being on the other side. It is a way of separating."
Goths, Crews said in an article in the Newport Daily News, are usually young, white, intelligent people who don't feel accepted. Some dress the way they do to instill fear, he says. But not all goths are to be feared.
Dykes is a 6-foot, 3-inch sophomore who got into the goth culture two years ago when he fell in love with the glam music scene. It would be a mistake, he says, to confuse him with goths in it for other reasons.
"You have mall goths, who are the ones who I feel do it for attention," he says. "They're the ones who cut themselves and moan and groan about how much life sucks. Marilyn Manson is the ultimate mall goth," says Dykes. "I'm in it for the industrial music scene. And I'm in it for the glam. It's as simple as that. Everyone is different this is me."
Dykes consistently an A student acknowledges his dilemma. "I know I dress in a way that most people, who aren't familiar with industrial goth, would think is Satan worship. Which is really kind of unfortunate, because to me, that's just a stereotype," he says. "But I did anticipate that there would be kids at school who thought I was one of them."
In fact, he wasn't at all expecting the reaction he got when he showed up at Winter Park High School after winter break sporting his new look.
"I was really surprised when I came to school the first week, and everyone was so nice to me. I guess I was expecting a little negativity from people who didn't understand why I was dressed this way," says Dykes. "I walked into one class and got a standing ovation. I have a lot of friends from a lot of diverse groups at school. Cheerleaders, football players, teachers and all kinds of people seemed to see through the makeup and recognize me for who I am a nice, respectful guy."
But the acceptance was short-lived. Soon, students were making fun of Dykes. "People will walk by me and say things like 'Satan rules' or, 'Hi, Marilyn Manson,' and at first it would really bother me. But I decided I would get much more satisfaction out of ignoring them, or by saying something nice to them. Which not only confuses them, but I walk away knowing I'm the better person in that situation."
His mother was also disturbed by the treatment he received in public. "His look has really become sort of a litmus test to see who will accept him for who he is, and who judges him based on his appearance," she says. "It's been infuriating for me to have to sit back and watch how people treat him, even grown men."
Cottom, a devout Christian, isn't crazy about the way her son dresses. But she supports him. "I've really tried to be a model of tolerance and acceptance for my children," she says. "I'm a very committed Christian, and I know there are a lot of judgmental people out there. And that's been my main concern for Nick from the beginning."
Dykes says he tries to treat his harassers with respect in an effort to change their minds about him. Nonetheless, principal Gordon pulled the plug, telling the student he couldn't wear makeup anymore. Dykes ignored the warnings.
"They just told me that every time I wore my makeup, I would get a harsher punishment," he says. "I told them I thought it was ridiculous that I would get expelled for wearing makeup, and they told me, 'Yeah, so maybe you shouldn't wear it. We want you to stay in school and not have to go someplace else.'"
Dykes doesn't know which students complained. "I'm not a Satan worshipper, and I respect everyone's religious beliefs. The way I dress isn't a reflection of any kind of religion. It's just about the music," he says. "Why else would you be afraid of someone if not for your religious beliefs?"
Though goths have been roaming the halls at Winter Park High for years, Dykes says none of them have been told to change their ways. (Neither Winter Park High principal William Gordon nor other school administrators would comment on this story, so the statement is impossible to verify. Gordon's secretary told Orlando Weekly, "As a general policy, we do not talk about or discuss individual students with the media.")
There's nothing in the school dress code that outlaws makeup on boys or girls. Nor is there anything in the code of student conduct addressing student complaints about another student's appearance. The code does state, under the heading "Free Speech/Expression," that each student's responsibility is "to respect the right of others to express their views."
By Aug. 1, 2006, students' right to express themselves via clothing may be revoked altogether. State Rep. Bruce Antone is proposing a bill that would make school uniforms mandatory throughout Orange County schools.
"`Dykes' situation` is a good example of why we need school uniforms in Orange County," says Antone. "It takes the focus off academics, which is exactly the kind of thing we should be working to prevent. We need to restore a sense of order and discipline in the schools."
Antone says uniforms will offer students protection from violence and distractions. "Weapons, including firearms and knives, have become commonplace upon even our elementary school campuses," according to HB 0679. "Students often conceal weapons by wearing clothing, such as jumpsuits and overcoats, and by carrying large bags."
Adds Antone, "If there's a gang on campus, kids are being beaten up for wearing the wrong colors, and teachers can't keep up with the ever-changing gang regalia. Or, if a child can't afford nice clothes, he or she may be picked on or assaulted if their clothes aren't hip enough."
A standardized dress code will also help teachers and police quickly identify who is supposed to be on campus and who isn't, he says. The school uniform would consist of collared shirts, knee-length skirts and khaki pants or shorts.
Rumors of a mandatory school uniform are leaving some OCPS students unhappy. "I think people should be allowed to express themselves, and uniforms really inhibit that," says 17-year-old Winter Park High School senior, and fellow goth, Ashley Brozenske. "Instead of outlawing something they don't really understand, maybe they should take the time to look into `goth culture` instead of just throwing it out altogether."
Dykes agrees. "I think this is a stage for me. As long as I love this type of music, I'm going to dress for the environment. I don't think at 40 I'll be dressing this way, or even 30 or 20. But I know for now that this is what I'm into, and when I'm done with this, I'll move on to something else."
Dykes' fellow students got a petition going to support his clothing and makeup choices; it garnered 146 signatures, including that of one teacher, Michelle Chapman. A school administrator even offered to help, he says. "One administrator told me she wanted to help me make the petition legit, but she didn't want me to reveal her name to the press because she didn't want to lose her job. She thought it was ridiculous that I wore makeup, but she said she thought it was wrong for them to force me not to."
The Orange County Public School community relations office is not eager to talk about it either. "Dress code policies differ from school to school, and something like this has to be discussed with the principal himself, since they have the final say in issues like this," says OCPS spokesperson Dylan Thomas.
He adds, "But I suspect that Mr. Gordon is just trying to keep the peace while also attempting to let everyone express themselves."
Dykes still dresses in black, and still wears eyeliner. He has, for the time being, quit wearing white powder or eye shadow on his face at school.
His mother remains committed to supporting her son, makeup or not. "As leaders, we should be guiding children and showing them love and acceptance and how to grow into adults. No one notices that that Nick holds the door open for people, that he has good table manners, that he says please and thank you and that he's a smart, well-behaved, well-mannered kid. All they see is a kid in makeup, and they immediately judge him. And then they wonder what's wrong with our youth!"