Health

Head of the class

Holly Back taught hundreds of young women to snip their way to success and self-respect. Now, her go-for-it attitude will show you anything's possible when you believe in yourself.

Strength from adversity

“I think everyone has one year from hell,” Holly says, putting down her coffee cup and shaking her head. For her, it was the year she turned 25. The first blow arrived when Holly separated with her then-husband. She was devastated. Not only had she just used her last $5,000 in the world to buy a salon, she now had to be a single parent to two-year-old Tyler and baby Mitchell, too. And even though she’d only taken a week off after giving birth—”I didn’t even mess my lipstick,” she jokes, “I had clients waiting”—she was now working full throttle to keep her babies and business healthy.

Her days were spent battling for day care and serving clients. Her nights were spent washing diapers and salon towels. And then something even more devastating happened: Mitchell toddled onto the road and was hit by a car. “I was told if he survived he’d be severely brain-damaged,” she says. He wasn’t—today he’s a strong 28-year-old firefighter. But the tragedy sparked a major attitude change in Holly. With her sons to inspire her and the realization that she could power through just about anything, she decided she was done with hard times: she would will them away. “From that day I have never looked back,” she says.

So, she sold her business, got a job in someone else’s salon styling hair and focused hard on building a cosy life for her family. This new beginning included finding love again with her second husband of 21 years, Dennis, and having a third son, Jordan. And in 1990, Holly finally found a job that made use of her other talent: teaching. When she heard that a high school in her old neighbourhood needed a hairdressing instructor for Grades 8 to 12, Holly knew it would be a chance to connect with students who struggled with school as much as she had.

Holly got the job and inherited a group of kids who hated class and weren’t interested in heading to university, so they skipped school and got into trouble. Holly enlisted the help of a more experienced teacher, who helped her develop a two-year program that would teach them basic math, science and English—all within the context of hairdressing. Not only did she help the students graduate, she got them ready to apply for hairdressing certificates so they’d have marketable skills. “My job was my life and I’m not exaggerating,” she says. “I loved those kids. I loved them because no one else did.”

A perfect example of just how far one of those “kids” has come is Karen Rhodes, a staff stylist in Holly’s main salon. Now 29 years old, Rhodes says Holly was like no teacher she’d ever had before. “She brought us home, she took us to dinner,” Rhodes says. “She was a friend. There are probably 300 girls in Vancouver who would say the same thing.”

Holly also reassured Rhodes’ mother that her daughter wasn’t doomed. “My daughter wants to be a veterinarian,” Rhodes’ mom would always insist. Hairdressing, after all, wasn’t a real job in her eyes. So, Holly made the woman a promise: “I will make Karen successful,” she remembers saying. Today, Rhodes not only feels successful financially, she’s still thrilled with her 11-year career. “My family is so proud of me now,” Rhodes says.

But despite the students’ glowing reviews, the principal of the high school had some concerns. Although Holly had received an instructor’s certificate and her master’s degree in education at Simon Fraser University, he terminated her contract in 1998 and hired someone he saw as more qualified. “I was devastated,” Holly says quietly. “I lost my job that summer, but I felt as if I’d lost my life. I was so low. It was awful.”

That depression lasted for several months. She was heartbroken to lose her connection with her students. “People kept saying to me, ‘Oh Holly, you’ll do all right. You always land on your feet,'” she remembers. “But I thought, ‘I’m so low now, I don’t even know if I can stand up.'” Eventually, with the help of family and friends, her depression began to lift. Holly didn’t just stand up—she started sprinting. She wanted to regain her spot at the front of a class. So, she landed a nice location in town with lots of parking, and opened her very own school and salon: Holly’s On The North Shore.