Like most babies, I was born with straight, glassy hair, plastered to the sides of my head and as soft as the down feathers of a magpie

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Like most babies, I was born with straight, glassy hair, plastered to the sides of my head and as soft as the down feathers of a magpie. I gurgled, and cried, and groped for things with little fingers, and, within three months, I was bald. The next nine months saw me through my first smiles, the discovery of my feet, the echoing peals of unsullied laughter that bubbled from my lips like liberated balloons. I learned to crawl backwards, collecting grounded toys between the bends of my knees as I clumsily navigated the doorframes of our Montreal duplex. On my first birthday, as I sprayed my first birthday cake in a thin mist of candle-extinguishing saliva, I blinked out over the white icing from beneath a dense helmet of freshly grown hair. After only one year in this exhilarating, new world, my fate had been decided: I would spend the rest of my life fighting a constant battle to keep people's hands away from my head.

I think we were asking for it, really, my parents and I. My hair wasn't so much as trimmed until I was seven years old; it grew long, and thick, and heavy. It was the color of coffee with at least three creamers, spun like gold. By the time I was in elementary school it reached down to the center of my back with long, tendriled fingers. My hair curls with the determination of an Olympic marathoner, of a small child tackling his first jawbreaker. It curls with enough precision and tightness that I can keep ballpoint pens inside each individual lock and shake my head like a caged beast without losing a single one. I have been told that it looks like dreadlocks without the hemp, like the red stripes of a thousand candy canes, like the broken and flexible cylinder of a perfect Christmastime ribbon curl. It has been called inhuman, insane, anatomically impossible. While it may very well be the first two, it is most certainly not the latter, and so it came to be that the catchphrase of my entire existence, the mantra of my first seventeen years, has reduced itself to the inelegant combination of six simple words:

Yes, it is naturally like this.

Some people appear to be truly unaware of how glaringly horrible they are at discretely staring at other individuals. How I react to affronts from these oblivious strangers is wholly dependent on my mood. Some days I ignore them: yes, I can feel your eyes boring holes into the back of my ponytail, but I am going to pretend that I cannot. Other days, when I find myself in more rebellious frames of mind, I find that the most interesting way to handle these wide-eyed observers is often to stare back at them. Not surprisingly, a lot of blushing goes on in these situations. People will often blurt apologies, followed closely by gushing compliments that typically involve such verbiage as gorgeous, beautiful, or really, really cool, oh my God. On occasion, these people move on after this quick exchange of words, bustling off to far corners of the super market, or ducking away behind clothing racks to avoid meeting my eyes. More often than not, however, compliments are followed by questions. These questions cover a broad range of loosely related subjects, but can almost always be counted on to contain several of the following:

Where do you get that hair from? Do you ever straighten it? What do you have to do to get it like that? Do you know how much some people pay for hair like yours? And/or, What are you mixed with? To which my typical answers are I don't know, no, not much, I've been told, and excuse me?, respectively.

After having their curiosity satiated, people try to touch me. I have become an expert at detecting the earliest signs of a toucher: the twitching fingers, the slow inching closer and closer, the quickly moving irises that dart from my face, to the crown of my head, to the hair that falls past my shoulders in coiled rivers. Sometimes they ask if I mind if they take a gentle pull at one curl. Sometimes they do not. I have had an astronomical number of other people's fingers on my scalp, a number so disturbingly exorbitant that it could probably find me some type of fame if I were to bring it to public attention. People pull down on my curls and coo like grandmothers when they spring back into place, occasionally grazing me in the face in the process. When I was young, I used to yell at my mother, "They won't leave me alone!"

They really do not leave me alone.

Clearly, there are worse things than being told that your hair is fantastic on a daily basis. I could claim that all of the attention puts a lot of pressure on me to maintain the hair, to make sure that it is in shipshape every time I even so much as set one toe outdoors. This would be lying, though, because the honest truth is that my hair is not, and has never been, about how other people perceive it, or me. I am entirely convinced that my outward appearance is a direct reflection of my inward appearance; my hair grows from my head in a way that few people in this world can claim that theirs does, and the thoughts inside that head are thoughts that few people in this world can claim for their own. My hair doesn't make me different; my hair is different because I am different. I love the chaos that tumbles around my shoulders, love that people remember me even if they do not know my name. My hair is busy because my head is busy, digesting this world and its people and its ideas.

I had a friend who told me once that my hair smells like Narnia, and that it looks like it could be from a magical place like that, somewhere not just anyone can go. Strangers ask me where I'm from, what my heritage is, what I'm mixed with. I haven't decided yet if I believe in rebirth, but if I do then I know that I have an old soul, one that's been more places than my mortal eyes will be able to see in this short lifetime. I am of the world; I am full of the world and all of its possibility, the potential that brims up at the edges of my eyes like tears.

There is a reason that so many people run their hands through my hair, and the reason is that I always let them. I want to share with every person that I meet, tell them my stories and listen to theirs, even if that means a few awkward moments of gushing and pulling and questions that I will be able to recite from memory until the day that I die. Some days I am tired, or irritable, or in a rush, but my lips can't help themselves. Always, I find myself saying, go ahead and touch it. Really, don't worry; everyone does.

Admissions Reader Comments
Ellen writes her personal essay with such creative imagery as she describes the uniqueness of her hair, curls beyond curls, with images and experiences that include stares and glances and multiple remarks. She describes it all with great humor. Her essay engages one to see and to feel as she describes reactions to her hair's unique presence and to chuckle with the comment of "Yes, it is naturally like this." One knows she is a writer before one even discovers that she writes as part of the James Thurber Workshop program in Ohio. She is a gifted writer who displays qualities of grace, humor, tolerance and a comfort with her place in the world, all personal qualities that contributed to her place in our freshman class!
—Sherryl Fletcher, Senior Associate Director of Admissions

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