May 23, 2010 1:26:00 AM
It was the summer of 1989 and I had just said goodbye to all my friends from high school, nervous about my two possible choices for a future: the one my daddy wanted so badly for me and the one I was destined to live out.
Since I had barely passed algebra, we both settled into the sobering reality that medical school was not in my cards. A friend talked me into carpooling with her to John''s School of Cosmetology in Hattiesburg. I had nothing to lose and no idea of all that I had to gain.
The weeks flew by as quickly as flipping the controls on a hair dryer from low to medium and then to high. I was the proverbial fish out of water for sure.
I will never forget my orientation, when I was given a textbook the size of an encyclopedia, a workbook with the sketch of a woman''s face on the front and a huge black bag. Inside the bag was everything a student in beauty school would require to "make pretty" and hopefully graduate at the end of 12 months.
I met the four other glamour technicians in training those first few days and will never forget them as long as I live. Georgia was the most memorable, with her thin bangs framing an aging face, strong Southern drawl, daily devotionals from her Bible in the break room and that pearl blue car she deemed the thorn in her side.
Then there was Linda, who was the strongest personality of our group, with her short brown bob, Wrangler blue jeans, and friendly face. She was the one who taught me to roll a perm on a mannequin left-handed, despite the fact that I am right-handed.
The most glamorous of our quintet of rat-tail-comb-armed wannabe stylists was Diane. When she spoke, we all listened. She was the first to finish a task, whether a roller set or a wedge haircut, and she always brought cinnamon rolls for breakfast. To this day I have never tasted another cinnamon roll so delicious.
Last, but not least, was Glenda, who joined the group late when she heard the news her good-for-nothing husband had been cheating on her, leaving her with two teenage daughters, a mortgage and just enough money to pay for beauty school tuition. We spent a lot of time consoling Glenda while she fought back the tears, but ultimately got her fighting spirit back. It was an interesting summer, indeed.
We began as freshmen, and after two months of theory about all things that could fall under the category of "trichology," the study of hair, I moved up to junior and began taking clients.
My first client was a beacon of all things trendy and modern, wanting to look just like a movie star. The only name I ever knew her by was Mrs. Askew or "my nine o''clock lady." She was about 5 feet tall with heels, wore her hair in a pageboy, and was not a day younger than 85. She presented an experience that a young, skinny boy like me was fortunate to have, and I learned quickly.
Before I really knew what happened, I made it to senior status, where I spent most of my days counting tips, perfecting the State Board haircut on my mannequin and teaching the new freshmen how to execute a shampoo.
Made for TV
Beauty school was a series of skits perfectly written for an episode of "Saturday Night Live" or "MAD TV." I had never rolled a head of hair, so it took me three weeks to finish my mannequin the first time, while Georgia, Linda, Diane and Glenda had long since moved on to pin curls. I swore I would never learn to hold a pair of scissors and a comb in one hand.
There was the time I set a timer for 45 minutes of processing under the dryer then accepted an invitation to join some friends at Pizza Hut, leaving her for several hours marinating in dark auburn. I bet she stills remembers me.
One day I was practicing my blow dry on Georgia in the styling chair, twisting her round and round until she was all tangled up in the dryer cord. It took the entire staff, students and a few clients to get Georgia out of that mess.
I cut bangs too short, bobs too short, layers too short, cooked hair in perm rollers until almost well done, and was the first (and to my knowledge, the last) to ever dye a woman''s hair seven different shades of ugly all in one visit.
But through my frustration I held onto the promise my veteran instructor, also a man, had made me: "It''s all foreign to us in the beginning. You''ll get off to a much slower start, but you''ll finish well."
I hung on to everything ... my scissors, the slippery little strands of hair that were impossible to roll, my water bottle, but mostly I held on to those words.
I graduated, began work on a permit, sailing through my licensing and exams to work at and even own several wonderful salons over the past 20 years. But the best thing about being a hairstylist is all the Mrs. Askews that have come and gone. I wonder some days what ever happened to Georgia and the girls, my beauty school instructors, and that scared little skinny kid who knew absolutely nothing about "making pretty."
The good news: I improved, a lot. Unlike that famous Pink Lady from "Grease," no beauty school dropout here!
Former Columbus resident David Creel owns Beautiful With David salon in Jackson and has 20 years experience in the beauty industry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.