On November 30, 2012, I was officially transferred to the Temporary Disabled Retired List, which is the Navy and Marine Corps’ incredible awkward way of saying that they were tired of trying to stick me back together.  I had been on medical hold at that point for almost a year and had only recently gotten out of the hospital following my sixth surgery (third on my knees).  While transitioning out of the Marine Corps was difficult for me in some regards, my final duty station had been in Fort Devens, Massachusetts – where I served as an Inspector/Instructor for the reservists of the 25th Marine Regiment and was a part of the funeral honor and KIA notification teams for the center portion of the state.  My job required frequent interactions with the public and I lived a little less than an hour from base, so in many respects, I already had one foot planted firmly in the civilian world by the time my beard started growing in.

Although I knew my separation was imminent, the nature of being perpetually broken for more than a year of military service was frustrating and difficult to predict.  My initial efforts to evade a DD-214 pink slip by muscling through fitness tests despite my injuries had taken a toll on me physically and emotionally, but also delayed what I would come to realize was the inevitable.  Eventually, I came to the point in the process where there was nothing left to do but wait for the Naval Message that ordered me to go home – so I promptly applied to a few colleges in the area, assuming this final step couldn’t possibly take long.  I was accepted to my first choice, Framingham State University – a small state school near where I lived, and I planned to attend in the Fall… only to see the new semester begin as I continued to wait in limited duty purgatory.

Framingham State was extremely helpful throughout the process, delaying my enrollment by a semester due to the Marine Corps’ timeline stretching out further than I’d expected and putting me in touch with the VA liaison for the University to help me get my documents in order.  I entered the Corps in the days of the Montgomery GI Bill, but a few years prior to my separation Uncle Sam transitioned to the Post 9/11 GI Bill program – a shift I have to thank for my ability to attend school full-time instead of in the evenings after work.

Before the first day of classes, I headed into campus to get the lay of the land and check out the workout facilities.  Framingham has a decent division three football program, and their gym was open to all students and faculty.  It was smaller than most gyms you’d find on a military base, but what it lacked it dimensions it compensated for with twenty-year-old women wearing their finest in Abercrombie workout gear and trying desperately not to sweat through their makeup.  I’ve been a married guy for a long time, and I had no interest in getting to know these young ladies, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that they made for one heck of a first impression as I approached the glass wall separating the gym from an open auditorium.

I realized quickly, however, that I don’t like working out around a bunch of half-naked beautiful women.  While there were some big guys peacocking around the gym, also clad in Abercrombie with hair carefully spiked using what must have been industrial strength gel, I was probably the only guy in the room that was old enough to buy beer – and I was also the only guy rocking old, faded sweatpants and a baggy tee-shirt with the words “Mount Anthony High School Football 2001” emblazoned across my chest.  Of course, you didn’t need to read my shirt to tell I was out-of-place, because I don’t work out in a manner that’s particularly well suited for co-ed social occasions.

Now, I’m not a “grunter” or that guy that shouts at his weights to get pumped up between sets, but I do approach my workouts like I’m in a fight.  I’m angry, quiet, drenched in sweat, and I make faces mid-lift that I’d be embarrassed to let my wife see, let alone some strange young woman in booty shorts with three percent body fat.  It’s not that I was self-conscious – at almost thirty I don’t imagine I registered as a threat to most of these young ladies that had just reached voting age – but feeling that out-of-place can be a real distraction.

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After my workout, I hobbled out of the gym intent on heading home to ice my knee while I reassessed getting a membership to the gym near my house, when my phone rang.  It was my advisor, returning my call about shoehorning me into classes that were already pretty full.  She told me she was able to get me registered for a full-time course load and that my first class would be the following morning.  I was so excited to know things were finally all set that I nearly missed the name of my first post-Marine Corps college class – one of the few remaining with open seats: Gender Across Cultures, a study of the plight of women around the world.

The following day, I arrived to class fifteen minutes early and took a seat near the front row of the large classroom.  Slowly students began trickling in, and much like the gym the day prior, the ratio of men to women left me in the clear minority.  Our professor, a smart-looking young woman with an athlete’s build that asked us to call her by her first name (I opted instead for “Professor”) began the class by welcoming us all and asking us to be seated as she opened up PowerPoint on the large projector.

“This class is going to study the way women are seen, treated, and often oppressed by male dominated cultures around the planet,” she said showing us a picture of a young woman in a third-world country that looked familiar to me.  “We’ll be spending the semester learning about their experiences and discussing the ways our own culture reflects these gender-based prejudices.”

I glanced around the sea of women’s faces and spotted one other male in the room.  He was probably in his early forties, wearing a black “ARMY” hat and sitting with posture that indicated to me that his hat reflected his previous profession.  He was wide-eyed, as I must have been, and for a split second we made eye contact – commiserating over our collective fates, as the professor continued.

“Why don’t we go around the room and introduce ourselves?  When I point to you, please stand up, tell us your name and your major, and if you’re comfortable, give us an example of how you think women are perceived in our culture based on your own experiences.”  She was looking right at me.  I silently prayed that she’d start with the young women to my left or right, but then her finger followed her eyes’ lead.  She was pointing at me now too.

“How about you, Mr.?”

I stood up and cleared my throat, “Hollings… Mr… I mean Alex.  I’m Alex Hollings.  Communications major.”

“Welcome to our class Alex!  Do you have an experience you’d like to share?”

“Uh… no thanks.  I’m good.”  I sat back down.  I understand that women often don’t get a fair shake in this world, but I wasn’t prepared to lead the charge against my own gender on the first day of class.  She thanked me and moved on to a young lady to my right.  She stood and introduced herself, and then began to share her experiences with gender perception.

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“I think that men in our culture are no different from the men in other countries that think they can own women.  Our media objectifies women’s sexualities…” She went on for a few minutes.  Although there may have been something to her statement, I couldn’t help but notice that her shorts ended above the bottom of her butt cheeks and wondered if my noticing indicated that she was right about men, or if she was just a hypocrite.  I leaned back in my chair and figured it was probably both.

“Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.  Let’s all thank her together now everyone.”

The class erupted into congratulatory thanks and I slunk down a bit further into my seat, thinking to myself, “It’s going to be a long first semester.”