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Eliza straightens her hair every day.
She wakes up at 6:30 AM to straighten it. She uses an expensive straightening iron that her parents bought her for Chanukah. Eliza’s hair is brittle and broken from so much straightening, and it screams at her to leave it alone, but she clamps her expensive straightening iron over it, and asphyxiates it. Then, once she is finished, Eliza steps into her Ugg boots, and goes to school.
When Eliza goes to school, she carries a backpack that weighs around twelve pounds. It holds a pencil case, a TI-89 graphing calculator, two binders, three notebooks, a Spanish textbook, a Latin textbook, a ripped, plastic folder, mascara, Orbit gum, and a cell phone with a cracked screen.
“Clean out your bag,” Eliza’s mother always yells. “You’re going to give yourself scoliosis.”
Eliza stomps her foot at this, because there’s nothing that she can take out of her backpack. She cleans out her binders after each chapter test, but then a new unit starts, and the papers pile up again. Well, there’s one thing that Eliza hasn’t cleaned out of her binder. She hasn’t taken out an essay she wrote for English. The essay is about a book called, The Great Gatsby. The essay is seven pages long, and Eliza got an A-minus on it. Choppy at times, but very good insights. Your writing is, for the most part, clear and concise, and your critical reading is excellent. Nicely done, her English teacher wrote on the bottom of the essay.
Eliza has not cleaned out the essay, even though she wrote it back in October. She keeps it folded in a wrinkled little package, in the innermost pocket of her backpack. Sometimes, Eliza takes it out, and looks at the red A-minus, and her teacher’s comments. The grade and comments are always there, and they will be there forever, but sometimes Eliza fears that they might slip away if she is not carefully to look at them every once in a while.
When she sees the A-minus and comments, Eliza feels elated, like a pink, helium-filled balloon.
Willa Tayceston is Eliza’s best friend. Her backpack weighs around six pounds. It holds a pencil case with two mechanical pencils, three sticks of eyeliner, mascara, liquid cover-up, power cover-up, foundation, blush, seven tubes of sticky lip-gloss, and an eyelash curler. Also in her backpack are four notebooks and folders, that overflow with messy, ripped bundles of paper. Willa has no TI-89 graphing calculator because her math level is not advanced enough for her to need one. While Willa’s backpack is not as heavy as Eliza’s, Willa also carries around the bad things that she did with James Lonvey and Brian Stamford, that everybody knows about. If asked to approximate, Willa would probably say that that particular load weighs around seven or eight pounds.
So, sometimes, Willa seems as though she, too, might get scoliosis.
The bad things Willa did were not so bad on a general scale, but relatively speaking, they were very bad. Eliza was there when they happened, and she swore not to tell anybody, but, somehow, everyone found out. The day after everyone found out, Willa asked Eliza,
“Did you tell about what happened?”
Willa made a clenched sound in the back of her throat.
She asked again, “Are you sure you didn’t tell?”
Eliza shook her head to say no. Eliza’s angry, burnt hair whacked her in the face as she shook her head. Willa decided that Eliza’s answer was alright for the time being, but she was absent from school the next day, and a bit glacial all week. That was last week, though. Now, Willa is no longer cold towards Eliza, and Eliza feels much better.
In High School, everything is over very quickly.
Eliza straightens her hair because who knows what will happen if she doesn’t. Her hair certainly is not afraid to find out, but Eliza is.
“Stop, Eliza!” Her hair screams as she clamps on it. “Stop!”
Eliza pauses and looks in the mirror.
“But I can’t,” she says.
The truth is that Eliza can. She can stop straightening her hair. If she stops straightening her hair, she will go to school wearing her Uggs and twelve-pound backpack, remain silent in English, think about lunch in math, say hi to Willa, do her homework, watch TV, and go to sleep. There’s nothing so frightening about that.
Eliza shakes her head.
In English on Wednesday, the class is talking about a book. The English room is cold, and full of smart people, because this is a smart class. A few kids talk all the time, so Eliza feels no need to talk, even though she read the book, and has an opinion about it. Her hair is straightened, she is wearing Uggs, and there is no need for her argue her opinion in English class, unless it is to make a bland statement that can’t possibly be wrong, such as,
“I think the Reverend Dimmesdale is going crazy with guilt,” or, “Holden is sad because his brother died.”
No. Eliza need not make a significant statement. Those previous statements are perfect; basic, non-biased, non-inflammatory, and indistinguishable. They are perfect for someone like Eliza.
All Eliza needs to do is pull her jacket tightly around her shoulders- because the room is so cold- and think about her plans for the weekend.
Eliza was set to be cold, and listen, when Isaac Phillips said this,
“The book is incredibly depressing. It teaches that life is unimportant, and that the only way to survive is to be apathetic towards everyone and everything.”
People nodded. This was certainly the correct answer, because Isaac had said it. He used big words and talked about politics, so everything he said in English class was right.
Eliza played with the zipper on her jacket.
Wait, she thought. That isn’t true. that’s not what it’s about.
“Does anyone want to respond?” the teacher asked.
Eliza had a little glimpse into a possible future: her hand going up in the air, the teacher calling on her, Eliza opening her mouth and speaking in a very clear voice that didn’t seem to belong to her, saying No, it isn’t true.
But then what would happen? Who would agree with her? Would anyone? Would raising her hand in eleventh grade English class make a difference for anybody- would it make a difference for her? Or would it be just another comment- one that she was proud of- that slipped into that place where all comments go that don’t really matter.
It is worth it to try and be different when no one seems to notice or care? Is it possible to be unique, even with straightened hair and Uggs?
No, Eliza decides. Once you have straightened hair and Uggs, there is nothing left for you but to have straightened hair and Uggs for the rest of your life. It is too hard to move, because the Uggs weigh too much- truly, they do- and your straight hair keeps you pinned to the wall, and you are stuck, with this identity you don’t want but are too scared to get rid of, and this razor sharp hair that pokes into your shoulders.
This particular thought weights a lot- maybe thirty to forty pounds. It condenses above Eliza’s head into a swirling steel cloud, and makes it much too difficult for her to raise her hand: the cloud is simply too heavy to push through. And the English room is too cold. And Isaac Phillips is too smart and too right.
The rest of class goes on uneventfully.
In High school, everything is over very quickly. Anger is used as a tool, to blackmail or to give everybody something to talk about. Drama is contrived, and over exaggerated for the purpose of entertainment. Friendships come, and then are gone. Backpacks fill up and empty out; a constant stream of failed and aced tests, empty and half-filled packs of gum, ripped and repaired plastic folders, special essay comments that make you feel like a pink helium-filled balloon, and exclamations on your math test in red pen: OUCH! See me!
Backpacks empty and fill up, the hallways empty out and fill up, minds empty and fill up and empty and fill up. But nothing lasts. It is hard to find things that matter, because everyone carries exactly the same load, and sees everything exactly the same way. In a sea of Uggs and straightened hair, it is hard to find what matters. Hard to find why you matter.
“But I don’t wear Uggs!” says the girl with waist length hair and cowboy boots and black shorts with lime green tights.
But on the inside, everyone wears Uggs, and everyone has straightened hair. Everyone carries the same load. The objects making up the load change, and some carry more Emotional Bright folders than Plastic Bright folders. But everyone’s load weighs exactly the same as everyone else’s load. You can try and break out, but to what end? And besides, breaking out is much too heavy.
And if no one can understand this and no one will acknowledge it, it’s alright. You can’t make anybody try to understand. They can’t. It’s impossible.
But that’s just High School.
The next morning, Eliza wakes up and straightens her hair.