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I hate “firsts.” First days of school, first days on the job, first dates, first time driving, first drink, first time ANYTHING. My life has been burdened, furthermore, with the gift of social awkwardness. The first day at the academy was mostly introductions. I was waiting outside the first classroom, encased in glass for all to see like bacteria on petri dishes. The instructor was quiet, maybe mouthed a small, “Hello,” while turning through her teaching plan. That is to say, if the academy had one. I sat closest to the door, that way I never had to struggle to wait behind a line of people before leaving. As the hour grew closer, more students started to sprinkle into the room. Surprisingly, the class was outweighed by guys. This was due to the academy’s barbering curriculum, and, at the time, there were no barbering schools within the state. A thin variety of beauty schools provided such extensive training. Usually, cosmetologists had to invest in that sort of thing on their own outside of school. Or, frankly, learn in the field.
One station over, there was a girl with heavy blue eyes, long lashes, and hair past her waist. She was clearly very young, but she was also very pretty. Like a doll, she smiled faintly, and then bent her head back down into her iPhone. Next to me, a gay Black guy sat down, smiling and brushing his hair with a paddle brush that he kept in his pocket.
At the last second, a girl came in a little hectic, her dark hair flying over her face that was heavily contoured. She had big eyes too, brown and somewhat chaotic. Like she wasn’t sure what was going on around her. She looked at me briefly, then started unpacking her things on the other side of my station. I sighed, because mornings are just not for me. In order to make it to the academy by 9, I had to leave my house at 7:30, no later, catch two buses, and hope for the best. I wouldn’t be awake until noon.
“Hi,” the girl piped. She was young, too; I assumed that she was the same age as the girl one station over.
“Hey,” I yawned, somewhat on my guard (OK, so I have trust issues).
“I’m Cara. Nice to meet you.”
As the hour was upon us, the instructor started to close the door when a very stern, mother-type voice called out, “Wait, I’m comin’!”
A Black girl with long, auburn dyed braids, a colorful scarf, and heavy earrings strolled into the room. She chose a seat towards the front, on the opposite side of another Black girl who was pregnant. The instructor, who seemed out of it, shut the door and said:
“For future reference, ladies and gentleman, call time is 9 AM sharp. If you are not here, you will be marked absent and points will be removed from your class record. In the end, this will affect your graduation date. So please, be on time.”
The Black girl who had strolled in made a sound that sounded like, “HA!” before settling into her seat. The instructor moved towards the front of the room where her podium was. Beside her was a whiteboard easel with her name scrawled onto it, and her phone number below that all students were required to have for class-related questions and emergencies.
Her name was Ms. Blane. She had an undercut styled into a long Mohawk swept over one side. Next, she asked us to form something like an introduction circle, where we’d go around one-by-one and say our names and why we were here, what our hobbies were outside of the academy, and what we aspired to do when we graduated. I can’t recall anyone’s name anymore…which I guess shows the impressions they left behind. I can however, recall some of the personalities that came with those that remained and didn’t end up beauty school dropouts. But other than that, there is nothing.
Many of the guys in the class had the same backstory, some had kids and wanted to make a difference for them by becoming barbers. The girls are just as fuzzy to my memory, especially the ones I never spoke to because they attended for a week before leaving altogether. Many of the girls seemed to have the same story as well: they had attended one or two beauty schools before dropping out for various reasons, transferring their credits to the academy. Cara and the doll-faced girl one station over came from wealthy backgrounds in rural parts of the state, and had attended college before quitting and telling their parents that they wanted to go to the “best hair academy” in the state.
The doll-faced girl one seat over from me was named Sarah. She was twenty years old and had the longest blonde hair I’d ever seen. It was her prize, something she clung too desperately. Sarah came from the mountains, just like I had, where she met her boyfriend shortly out of high school and attended college near her hometown. A few years in, she decided to move to the city with her boyfriend and her parents didn’t find out until the day she packed up her car. Unlike Cara, she no longer was receiving financial help from her family and was unemployed for the duration of our friendship. We became friends almost instantly. Sarah was sweet, fresh in the city, and had no friends. I'm naturally drawn to lonely people, outcasts, and underdogs. So it wasn’t hard to befriend her.
Cara, however, fought with her parents consistently because they were against her desire to leave college and attend beauty school. The reason she had left was that she befriended one of the junior girls on the floor when she was asked to be a hair model for the fashion show the semester prior to my attendance. So, she entered the academy with a chip on her shoulder, like a desperate member of "mean girls." Or more like Fran from Jawbreaker.
Regardless of their bickering, Cara’s parents gave in and paid for her to attend the academy, a luxury most of the students in our class didn’t have. Her only reason for leaving college was because she was “bored.”
The introduction circle came around to me, and when I felt everyone’s eyes boring into my soul, I yawned. Laughing nervously, I apologized:
“Hello, I’m A---. I was in community college for a semester, decided it wasn’t for me, and went with my next plan, which is to become a hairstylist. I’m not sure what I want to do with it yet…but hopefully I’ll end up working in a high-end salon and eventually open my own place. Uh,…I’m in a band and once in a while I model for fun.” Some nods of interest and that was it.
I lied through my teeth. I didn’t want to open my own salon…I don’t want that much responsibility, but I supposed that I had to say something.
Raya was the Black girl who had strolled in late, long braids down her back. She half waved and said that she had been a stylist out of her home for several years and finally had the time to attend school. She had five kids who she was raising on her own, as well as taking care of her mother. Next to her, the pregnant girl introduced herself as Charlie. She had the biggest smile, and always wore a positive outlook on every situation. Later, both Raya and Charlie would become my dearest friends at the academy, proving to be much more loyal individuals than two young White girls. Throughout much of my life, my best friends have always been Mexican-Americans and Black girls.
Later, when I mentioned this to another African American women whom I befriended, she said it was because, “That is what you know. What you're comfortable with…what you are.” As a racial melting pot, there was no arguing that those are two genetic lines that just don’t leave the blood easily.