If you take everything else away, I would contend that my defining characteristic is my hair. As a kid, my nickname was broccoli, based solely on the fact my hair resembled a sprouting floret. Coming into the COVID–19 pandemic, I remember a teacher noting that while he struggled to recognize the rest of his students in their masks, he always knew I was approaching because of my signature mane. Everyone’s first compliment was of my curls and their last question was an inquiry into my hair routine—to which I always falsely answered, “I don’t even know,” as if I didn’t spend hours on Sunday pre–conditioning, co–washing, plumping, or whatever other tips I picked up from the endless curly hair influencers I followed.
Coming into college, I noticed the change in my hair before anything else. Sundays were filled with club meetings so there was no room for my time–honored ritual of wash day. Instead, I would haphazardly condition my hair at 2 a.m. when I could sneak a shower into my busy schedule. Exhausted from a long day of classes, I'd fall asleep before wrapping my hair in a T–shirt to protect it. The next day meant jumping out of bed minutes before class after a late night without enough time to carefully style my hair as I once did with pride. My hair became in essence an abandoned garden, once–pruned roses now wild and unkempt. It was yet another thing out of my control in a new world spinning faster than I could fathom.
If you ask me whether I believe in free will, my answer will depend on the time of day. Mornings, I’m an idealist. Around lunchtime, I start to converse with Nietzsche, and by night—having bounced through the day like a ping pong ball—I resign myself to believing I'm utterly powerless. The feeling was only exacerbated by the forward–thinking environment Penn fostered, where my future feels entirely unpredictable—as every acceptance or rejection was ultimately in someone else’s hands regardless of how hard I worked. In a world where it felt like I had so little control over how people perceived me or what came next, I had once prided myself on taming at least my hair. Now, though, it had assumed a life of its own out of neglect—yet another variable uncontrolled.
Alone in my dorm after a Friday night out, I was once again pondering the merits of free will. There's something about the hours between midnight and morning that feels forbidden, as if you're trespassing on a world in which the rules of reality no longer apply. Anyone who's had those moments at 2 a.m. alone, studying for a midterm or walking home from a party, remembers how the world was completely quiet and if you so desired you could scream into the abyss. Perhaps these are the pockets in which free will resides. That's what I said as I grabbed my roommate's scissors and headed towards the gender–neutral bathroom, bringing along my friend Bill, who I ran into on the way. At 2:57 a.m., I had decided to endow myself with some semblance of free will, if only in determining the style of my hair. I pulled my locks over my eyes and cut them in one swift motion. Who cares what it looked like? Whether it was passable or the equivalent of a second grader with kitchen scissors, it was my own work, my own will.
Eventually, 2:57 a.m. turns into 9 a.m., and the rules of reality resume. You leave your dorm to brush your teeth, just as you have every morning of your life—and you will continue to do into oblivion. Until you run into your neighbor who looks at you and says, “Oh, so that’s where the hair in the bathroom came from.”