As a service to our young readers (and let’s face it, their neurotic parents) we will print over the next few months winning college essays from local students who were accepted into their first choice college or university. The author of the following essay is a Gilman alum and Dartmouth sophomore. See our top story “Coaching College Essays” for tips on how to write a winning college admissions essay.
Whenever I show a photo of my family to new friends, they invariably do a double take. No, it’s not because my father is Joe Biden nor because my sisters were raised by wolves. It’s because of me.
In my family of six, I am the only one with red hair — and not auburn-red, chestnut-red, or any red close to my parents’ brown, but a loudly lustrous, fire-orange red. And like most redheads and unlike my family, my arms are speckled with galaxies of freckles and my skin roasts scarlet under minimal sun exposure. I am, in many ways, a genetic non sequitur. My appearance does not follow from the premises of my existence.
As a result, strangers often either mistake me for someone else’s son or demand an explanation. From the moment I had a tuft of carrot on my head, the ladies in my mother’s garden club would come up to me, grab themselves a handful, and ask, “Where on earth did you get that fabulous red hair,” as if it were a rare ficus from the Galapagos. I heard the same from barbers, teachers, shopkeepers, anyone with a working pair of eyes, really.
Thankfully the answer doesn’t involve the mailman or tinkering with chromosomes. “From my grandmother,” I can say confidently, since I have inherited, quite unmistakably, the exact shade of persimmon-red hair of my mother’s mother. Coincidentally, I get my first name from her maiden name, making me a party to a remarkable hereditary phenomenon: all of the children on her side of the family named Harrison at birth — three of us so far — also, as a result of a certain common attribute, share a set of nicknames that includes “big red,” “carrot top,” and “pumpkin head.”
The oddity surrounding my birth and naming has always inclined me to consider my red hair a definitive aspect of my being, much more so, I imagine, than those with blond or brown hair do. As my hair goes with my name, so too should it with my identity. Growing up as a redhead, I’ve realized, I faced a unique set of challenges that have, for the better, profoundly influenced the person I have become.
One such challenge was the lack of redheads in my life. With Grandmother hours away, I was the lone freckle-face at home, and often the only one in the class. The sole redhead on TV came on way past my bedtime. The only fair-skinned fictional hero I ever found was a comic-book character. And as for historical figures, let’s just say I gave up on them when I learned that George Washington had red hair but powdered it white.
I was in a world all my own — a solitude that, while alienating at times, ultimately helped me find myself. By the time I reached the impressionable years of middle school, I felt in full command, able to deviate from the standard paths and avoid ready-made molds at will. I found my callings and threw myself into them with all of my might, even if they were things that might be mocked in the locker room.
While my friends trained to become expert video-game warriors, I armed myself with my parents’ old Nikon and took pictures. With some luck and some hard work, I caught the eye of a veteran photographer and spent a summer in his studio. I also did not seek to hide my love of food, and preparing it. In my lacrosse-playing days, I was known to cook for my teammates after hard-fought games. And now, I have taken a chance on a year off in a far-away land, working at King’s Academy in Jordan, a blooming, young school in a region marred by violence and strife. This is a risk I know for certain I could not have taken without the courage I amassed through these experiences.
My grandmother used to tell me, “There aren’t many of us, you know. You should feel pretty special.” And I do, because although I’ve flown solo for much of my life, I’ve found that the path that strays from the flock often leads to a world of infinite possibilities.