I think it's time to tell a long story I don't like telling very much. I don't like it because, for the most part, the cultures I come from have gotten along all right with each other, especially in my own life. Not everything works smoothly all the time, though. This is the first installment in a long story about how the symbol of the beard, which shows faith and identity in Sikhism, is connected with tradition and learning in Jewish memory, but has been frowned upon to varying degrees in Mormon circles since the 1960s or so, has caused particular trouble for me since late 2005.
Prologue: The Boy Who Wouldn't Trim His Sideburns
When I was a kid, I already loved beards. That may be because my father had one more often than not, or may be because of my Sikh uncles with their full beards and beautiful turbans, or maybe more because I already had a little tuft of hair under my neck by the end of third grade, and decided that if I was going to be hairy, I might as well enjoy it.
I think I was seven or so when I drew my dad's close friend, Roy Kanno (who we called "Uncle Roy") with a beard, only to realize when I was done that he actually just had a mustache and I'd drawn a beard instead by mistake because I liked him so much. This is my clearest memory of strong pro-beard prejudice.
I was probably nine or ten when I got the idea that beards developed gradually out of uncut sideburns and consequently refused to let my sideburns be trimmed for several consecutive haircuts. The barber teased me about Elvis. Other people wondered if I was trying to look like Spock. In different clothing and with a little curl, I would have looked more like a young Hasid. At some point, I figured out that no new hairs were about to start growing under my sideburns and stopped.
I first grew a beard when I was 14. With the exception of a brief period at the end of my freshman year and a play I shaved for senior year, I had a beard all through high school. I enjoyed the look, and also found that it was morally useful. When you're tall, relatively mature, and bearded in high school, people question your decisions less. Don't drink alcohol? You're obviously doing so out of genuine conviction and not fear of punishment, or you'd be out passing for 21+ and buying for everyone (at a reasonable service fee).
Brigham Young University has a rule against beards. Because my grandfather taught there, and my parents and all four grandparents had attended, I knew this. It didn't bother me much: I simply planned on steering clear of BYU. LDS missionaries also didn't wear beards, but a mission was so strange I figured I could stay clean-shaven for that. But for real life? No thank you. I'd take my pick of other colleges.
That decision only made a difference once, when my attendance at early morning religious classes (called seminary) was low and my bishop tried to encourage me to attend more often. He pointed out that to get into BYU, you had to pass seminary. I smiled, explained that I wasn't interested in BYU anyway, and he let the matter drop. I still went to seminary from time to time, but never enough to pass. I wish now that I'd attended more often. I wonder: if BYU allowed beards, would the bishop's attempt to encourage me have carried more weight?
When I finished high school in 2001, I was offered several scholarships to Otterbein College, where I'd be in a top-notch Theater program. All the scholarships put together paid for tuition and housing, so off I went with a beard I'd recently taken to wearing long and uncut and long hair to match. I brought my little brother and sister up to see campus when I moved in: a friend later told me that when he saw me for the first time, I was holding my six-year-old sister by the hand, pointing up toward what was actually my dorm room but he mistook for the heavens. Jesus is here, he thought. I am seeing a vision of Jesus on our campus.
Which, looking back, is particularly funny because on BYU campus, where trying to be like Jesus is a central ideal, I would have looked extremely out of place. I know this because four-and-a-half years later, I did.
Next up: in Part Two, how I ended up transferring to BYU, and a strange experience in Utah a month before I started.
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