It wasn’t a hard lesson, just one that I had never learned before.
Getting dropped off at college for the first time is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s leaving childhood behind and entering a pre-adult holding tank where nobody does your laundry, but your RA will still remind you to keep your music down. It’s sitting on your bed with your new extra-long sheets and a hideous comforter from Bed, Bath and Beyond and wondering if you should hide your stuffed animal from home under the pillow.
It’s looking at a hundred new faces wondering if even one of them will ever consider you a friend.
I grew up in a small town and went to a big college. The number of students living in my freshman dorm was greater than the total population of my hometown.
Since I had been with the same group of kids from Kindergarten until graduation, I didn’t know how to make new friends. I ventured up and down the hallway, trying to think of things to say that wouldn’t give away how scared I was to surrounded by people, yet hours away from a familiar face.
I met a girl who was living two doors down from me and she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Her name was Kerry and she had perfect everything. Her skin glowed and when she flashed a warm smile at me, I saw her perfect teeth. She looked like she had stepped out of a magazine ad for perfume.
Kerry told me that she was signing up to audition for an a capella group on campus. Impulsively, I told her that I was going to do the same.
We went to the student center and put our names on the list and agreed to meet up at noon the following day to go to the audition.
Auditioning for a singing group means you have to do just that: sing. I had been singing in my church choir, in my school chorus, in select chorus groups and as the lead role in three musicals in high school. I wasn’t about to cut any record deals, but I felt pretty confident about the singing part of the audition. I was nervous about the 20 minute cross-campus walk with Kerry.
Compared to her, I felt like a clumsy, weather-worn scarecrow. I had chipped glitter nail polish, she had a french manicure. My hair poofed out like cotton candy at the fair while hers was so sleek and shiny it looked fake. I had no idea what to talk to her about.
At noon, we met up and walked shoulder to shoulder to the music building. We stood in line and I noticed how people looked at Kerry. She seemed oblivious to how much attention she attracted as we talked about the classes we had signed up for and when we were going to go to the bookstore to buy our books. I asked her about the audition and she said she didn’t think she’d be chosen, because she had never really been in a singing group before.
They called my name and I entered a small room with a half a dozen upperclassmen sitting at a long table. I introduced myself and sang a part of a song I had performed dozens of times with my high school’s pop choir. When I finished, they thanked me and I left the room.
Kerry went in next. Right off the bat, I could hear bantering and laughter. She sang a few bars and then there was more laughter. While my audition had lasted less than five minutes, hers lasted at least fifteen. Sitting outside the room, I flushed with embarrassment.
I felt stupid for thinking that I might get selected. I felt stupid for wearing frumpy denim shorts and a baggy t-shirt from some high school fundraiser. I felt gross for pulling my hair into a messy ponytail with a pilled-up scrunchie. I felt mortified for planting both feet and singing a stupid song, holding my body motionless, as if I really was a scarecrow.
It hit me that Kerry wasn’t just singing. She was captivating everyone in the room. They were under her spell, sucked in by her smile and the way she tossed her head back and laughed easily as if the only thing in the whole word was the mildly funny thing you just said.
For the first time, I realized that the world is easier for beautiful people and I am not one of them.
Growing up in a farming community, I had mistakenly believed the world was a meritocracy. If you worked hard and did the right thing, you got ahead. There were no bonus points for your looks, since looks don’t milk the cows or put hay in the barn. If anything, callused hands and worn out clothes showed what you were made of and gave you a leg up in finding work or falling in love.
Of course, Kerry was chosen for the a capella group and I was not. Over the next few years, I went to her concerts and watched her light up the stage. Of course she deserved to be up there, delighting the audience with her impish smile and sexy curves. My initial disappointment turned into relief when I realized how uncomfortable I would have been in the spotlight like she was.
In the years since, I’ve come to terms with how I look. I will never turn heads or light up a room like the beautiful people. In fact, I have such a boring face that sometimes people meet me multiple times without remembering that we’ve already met. I’ve never been able to rely on a hair toss or a smile to get what I want, so I’ve continued to be a hard worker and a good problem solver.
And now I have a daughter. She is nine and she is so beautiful it breaks my heart. Of course, I know that puberty is right around the corner and it may snowplow her face into an awkward, zitty puzzle of disproportions. Or maybe she’ll stay beautiful, like Kerry.
I’m glad it’s out of my control because I don’t know whether I would choose to make her beautiful or plain. There are advantages to both. Unless you want to join an a capella group. In that case, it’s way better to just be beautiful.