A Hairy Idea

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about ideas. Specifically, the best idea you’ve ever had. This one’s kind of tricky, because it’s not always clear whether the choices you’ve made are good or not. The old saying that “hindsight is 20/20” is totally right. You just don’t know. What seems like a good idea at one point could backfire spectacularly down the line, and some of the worst moments you’ll ever face may have some unexpectedly good results years later. Paying for college by myself felt like chopping off a limb with a butter knife, but it forced me to develop the discipline and focus that I needed. And though I’m currently unemployed, all the savings and lack of loans means I’m doing much better than countless others my age. Since I’ve already talked about it for another prompt, I’d rather talk about a less obvious great idea:

Growing out my hair.

No, seriously. I grew up in a devoutly religious and conservative household. Very traditional…except for being raised by a single mother who was always working. You might know how that goes. I was required to run the household and adhere to the rules and high expectations thrust upon me. And I totally bought into it. I was the golden boy; I always turned in perfect grades, maintained a part time job, and could have the house spotless and dinner cooking on time. I was praised for being so on top of everything. But questioning anything was…well, out of the question. Oh, I asked questions. I’m curious and tenacious by nature. But I paid for it dearly. You obey the rules, all is good. You fail to meet expectations, and you get tons of screechy criticism and passive-aggressive shaming.

It didn’t help that I was shy. I consider myself really introverted now, but I used to be a full-blown shrinking violet. Yeah, it’s not so cute when you’re one doing the shrinking. I was so drawn into myself and afraid of people that I had no social life whatsoever. I was the quiet, smart kid who aced his classes, went home, read books for hours, and did it all again the next day. I was awkward, wore glasses, and skipped a grade. And when you’re a boy growing up like that, it makes you a prime bullying target. You know how a lot of media focuses on the bullying epidemic and how terrible it is? Yeah, no one cared about that 20 years ago; not a single adult helped me. My feminine appearance made it even worse. I was (and still am) frequently mistaken for being female. Physically, I was a late bloomer; kind of short, a soft voice, and a head of thick curly hair. I still hesitate to wear shorts because the other kids used to accuse me of shaving my legs. There were people who’d shout slurs and throw things as they drove past while I walked to school.

My entire childhood and adolescence was like this.

Eventually, I started standing up for myself. Since trying to be nice and praying to God for a good day weren’t working, I began fighting back. And I was vicious. I was suspended exactly once, and it took at least three teachers to physically drag me to the office. Even now, years later, I’m still trying to get my anger under control. Work in progress, believe me. But lashing out didn’t solve the bigger problem: the repression of my personality. I lived to please and meet expectations, but I ignored my individuality and wants. I didn’t ask for much; I was never the kind of kid that demanded everything under the sun. And I was too busy schooling and working as it was. But I had to change something…I had seen some anime where the male characters could pass as women. Since everyone kept mistaking in a similar way, maybe I could do something about it…

Like my hair!

Yeah, I got the idea from watching anime. Feel free to laugh. But it was obviously more than that. So, I decided to refuse getting a haircut. Since my mother was the one that typically did it, she was shocked and possibly disgusted. I had to physically stop her from raising the scissors to my head. I went through years of her berating me for it. She screamed and moaned about how disobedient I was, and why I couldn’t be a better child, why couldn’t I just be normal, and that I’d never make it in the professional world. When I went to church with my hair tied back, I was openly mocked and came close to being thrown out. Rather than supporting me, my mother simply shook her head and said how sinful I’d become. My extended family were no better; I was – and still am – the subject of many jokes and incredulous stares. Some of my relatives occasionally threaten to cut my hair while I sleep. My coworkers just chalked it up to me being eccentric, but I had too many years of seniority for anyone to make a fuss. So I just kept letting it grow.

Skip forward to the present, I’ve got two feet of thick and wavy curly hair. I think it looks awesome, and lots of women – and men – certainly agree. I get questions about it at least a few times a month. Ever have someone ask if they can touch your hair? It’s kind of funny. I’ve got this weird Captain Hook/Kirk Hammett/young Robert Plant look going for me. People ask if I moonlight in a rock band. I’ve never even touched a guitar. And while I’m not exactly tiny, I still get mistaken for a woman constantly. Unlike before, however, I take it in stride. My decision to grow my hair was one of the few decisions I’ve made for my sake. It helped make me a much more confident, assertive person; I’ve been told that I come off as regal and intimidating. That’s a far cry from the mousy bully magnet I used to be. People see my style as a mark of individuality and act accordingly. I’m not afraid anymore; I carry myself with the understanding that this is part of who I am, and not some expectation imposed upon someone else. I may have never been the most masculine guy ever, but that’s okay. If I can’t be handsome, then I can certainly be beautiful.

Daily Prompt: Sink or Swim, Or: Canned Peas – College Education The Old-Fashioned Way

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about perseverance. As in, dealing with a seemingly overwhelming situation on your own. This one hits really close to home, because it’s been such a huge factor in my life. I’ve got several stories to use – that’s the disguised blessing of being a loner and growing up in a broken home as a latchkey kid – and one is even ongoing as I type this. Hint: it’s not fun being unemployed. I’ll get into that story later. But this time, I’ll focus on something a little bit older:

College.

Aside from all the academic aspects, your college years are normally associated with things like partying, socialization, and developing as a person. You’re backed up by your parents, you meet people, and you just might learn a life lesson or two along the way. For most people, this process of changing from a young adult to being ready for the “real world” is typically a slow but steady process.

For me, it was a headlong plunge.

I’ve always been a great student. With my grades, I could’ve gone straight into places like Berkeley or Stanford. But I didn’t have the money for it; I didn’t have a college fund growing up. When I applied for financial aid, I was turned down because my parents’ salaries at the time exceeded the application’s quota; there was the underlying assumption that they would help me. But they didn’t; since I already had saved up money from working part-time as a high schooler, I was expected to foot the bill myself. My mother even lost her job shortly after the application filing period ended. I could’ve applied for student loans, but even back then I was savvy enough to know that would come back to haunt me. Same with credit cards. Considering the current debt and student loan financial crises, I’m glad to know I made the right decision. Thus I did things the old-fashioned way: I just took on part-time jobs, saved up, and focused on my schooling. Let me repeat that more simply: I paid for my college tuition myself. Let that sink in for a minute.

For those of you that have parents that pay for your education, thank them. Profusely.

Do you have any inkling of how hard it holding down a full course-load and working enough part-time jobs to make ends meet? It’s excruciating. But it is doable. I discarded my goal of going straight to a university and took all my lower division coursework at a community college. It wasn’t prestigious, but it saved me thousands. I couldn’t afford a car, so I simply walked and took public transit. I had to throw myself into my studies and make it count, because I literally couldn’t afford to fail. I didn’t sleep much during those years; I’d stay up late putting finishing touches on papers, only to wake up four hours later to get ready for my morning commute. I learned how to study and work in trains and buses instead of libraries. You’d be surprised how comfortable a pillow a hard plastic seat can be. It didn’t matter. All I cared about was the next assignment, the next class, the next objective. The requirements for a university transfer were spelled out in plain black and white; all I had to do was finish everything.

It took me a bit longer than most kids, but I got it done. My transfer was finished, and I was finally off to the university to tackle my upper division coursework. My first few weeks on the new campus, I felt like some of kind of impersonator. I was surrounded by people with backgrounds far better off than mine. A good portion of them (and instructors, for that matter) already knew each other from previous classes. I had to dig in and get adjust to the new setting. Some of those early lectures – particularly Renaissance Lit and Shakespeare – were the most technically demanding courses I ever took. They were the most rewarding, too; I was always a huge bookworm, but my literary and philosophical repertoire skyrocketed. I devoured information as if I were starving. My writings and eagerness to learn made me become the professors’ favorite within weeks. It’s not because I curried favor, but because I tackled the work with a no-nonsense but laid-back attitude. I did extremely well in this environment, and it seemed that finally, finally I would be able to make it through okay.

But I wasn’t. Not yet.

After some time, I had a consultation with one of my professors. She was actually spearheading most of her department’s graduate program, and offered advice to anyone who asked. She took one glance at my transcript and said, very plainly, that I might not graduate on time. Not because of the grades – I was acing every class – but because I didn’t have nearly enough coursework done. The revelation was utterly gut-wrenching. Due to the way the university’s scheduling worked, I might’ve missed out on vital courses and had to wait a whole year to take them. She explained that I could still pull it off, but I’d have to really step up my game.

So I did.

I walked out of that office with the determination that I would graduate on time. Looking back, it was probably one of the defining moments of my adult life. I realized that I had let myself become complacent after I had transferred; I had gotten too comfortable in my element, and it was catching up with me. I cast away all distractions. What little time I spent with my hobbies was used to study. There were no relationships, no parties, nothing else. When it came time for the quarterly registration, I doubled my course-load without a second thought. As a result, I had to reduce my working time to only a single day a week. Can you imagine doing that? Just scraping by with tiny paycheck every too weeks? Carefully budgeting out every last cent? Eating out of cans for months because you can’t afford anything else? Paying tuition was like cutting off a limb. I watched my savings crumble like an old wall with each passing quarter. But I knew that I couldn’t give up. I had come too far. I needed to finish.

And I did.

Obtaining that degree was one of the most exhausting and fulfilling challenges in my entire life. Not from an academic standpoint, but from a logistical one. When I triumphantly walked across that stage in my cap and gown, my account was nearly empty. I had almost nothing left. But I didn’t have a single cent of debt to my name. I may have been broke, but I now know that I’m in a better financial situation than the millions of others mired in loans. It taught me the value of focusing on the important things, responsibility, and the understanding that your essential, practical needs will always trump desire. You’d be surprised how much you can learn to love canned peas and bread when it’s the only thing affordable. I’ve also come to realize that it broke me emotionally; I didn’t have a single relationship – romantic or otherwise – in those years. Compared to most people my age, I’m terribly maladjusted. I still feel ashamed and guilty whenever I want to buy something for myself. And that sense of responsibility can be crushing. I need to work on those.

But whenever I feel weak, I look back and realize how determined and capable I can be.