The Tattoo

By March all the students were comfortably speculating on what my new career would be, and I was accepting all suggestions with equal enthusiasm, but one day Emmah tossed out this idea: "Thompson, you should get a tattoo. On your face!" One of those weird classroom pauses occurred after the initial giggles. The whole class, at the same moment, went silent to see how I would punish Emmah for this inappropriate and unsolicited suggestion. My eyes narrowed as I turned on her.

"That's not a bad idea...except for the face part," I said, digressing from whatever lesson I had been facilitating. "I could get a memorial tattoo that symbolizes my teaching career...Hmm..." Another pause, while this idea started to percolate. They watched expectantly. "I could get it on my shoulder, so I could cover it when I'm applying for whatever new job I try to get, and it could represent this 30-year span of my life...." Then I wasn't talking so much to the kids as to myself, ruminating aloud about this new possibility. Of course they let me do this, and they remained more or less quiet while I did so, but then Connor (as always!) spouted off, "It could be a big picture of your face!" The spell broke. More giggles.

"Really, Connor? Really?! I'm gonna tattoo a picture of my own face on my own shoulder?! Geez...."

Colton piped up: "You could put MY face on your shoulder!"

"You think I want your face ON ME for the rest of my life?!"

Then chaos: "You could put MY face on the back of your head, so people would think you were me from behind!"

"Or just a giant eyeball -- like the cyclops in The Odyssey!"

("I like where you're going with that," I injected. "Keep talking.")

"A tarantula like Juliet on your arm! Then you could actually put her next to the tattoo and take a picture for Instagram!"

"A smashed fly!"

"A bloody eyeball!"

"You could actually tattoo that KISS guy's make-up around your eyes!"

Getting 30+ kids of any age to focus on the same concept and move in the same direction with their thinking is one of the hardest things a teacher has to do, and one that non-teachers have no concept of. Just because a lecturer finds his topic the most fascinating thing in the world does not mean it will be of any interest to a room full of disinterested and distracted (i.e., normal) teenagers. And just because an adult authority figure is presenting from the front of the room does not mean anyone is listening. Ironically, one of the most effective ways to engage an entire class is to encourage them to participate in something apparently non-academic, comical, or edgy -- something just beyond what the class would (or should) require. Many new teachers are very good at this, but they have failed to master the counterpart skill: regaining control. When the momentum of an entire class of teenagers is going in a particular direction, it is almost impossible to reverse the direction. Newbies sometimes set themselves in opposition to the students, shout teacherly things, blow wind into the sails of the careening ship that is now their classroom, and when they finally re-establish control, a resentful and angry silence falls over the room as the class returns to the tedium of traditional instruction. Most teachers discover early on that it is easier never to relinquish the control in the first place, and they steer clear of any activities or discussions that might foment insurrection. After so many years working with large groups of ninth graders, I wasn't too worried about relinquishing control. I was usually bigger, louder, more aggressive, more sarcastic, and crazier than any of my students, so I could usually regain their attention not by demanding they stop doing whatever I had just encouraged them to do, but by embracing the chaos and upping the stakes. And that is what I did during this initial tattoo "discussion."

"I've got it!" I yelled, snapping my fingers and rolling my eyes upward and stroking my goatee in the thoughtful reverie of a mad scientist who has just discovered the secret of reanimating the dead. "You guys will design the tattoo!"

They were intrigued. They listened. Most teachers in Utah don't have tattoos, and for the faithful masses who populated my classroom over the years, tattoos might have even been considered sinful, probably as or more so than the oceans of hot coffee my students watched me consume in that time. This idea was exciting because it was out there on the border of appropriate.

"You can't just shout ideas at me," I went on. "I need drawings, actual artwork. Since this is going to be permanent, I don't want you do it right now. (Put the pencil down, Gavin!) Just listen to the requirements...."

Thinking on my feet, I then had to make up some requirements. "You all know me pretty well by now. You've heard my stories. You've seen my style. You know my sense of humor. And you all know that I don't want a pretty butterfly tattoo. No flowers! No hearts...unless they are grasped by the angry fist that just ripped them from an enemy's chest. Look around this room! Think about the literature we've read this year! Consider what you know about me and how much space on my body I am willing to devote to this. (Here I gestured to the back of my left shoulder.) If you have no artistic ability, work with someone who does to develop your idea. I will not permanently mark myself with classroom doodles. I want realism! (Gavin! Stop drawing!) And since this isn't something I will do until summer, you've got plenty of time to make it fabulous! Richly symbolic! Gruesome but intellectual! Deep! Iconic! And what better way to mark a career in teaching than with the work of one of my own students! Who will it be?"

The chaos had subsided, replaced now with a kind of giddy excitement. (Gavin ran up and handed me a piece of paper, which I dropped immediately into the garbage can.)

"Tattoo designs will be accepted until the last day of school. The winning design will be announced on the classroom website. Questions?"

Kamille raised her hand: "Why don't you get it before school's out so we can see it?"

"Oh, don't worry! If I permanently scar myself, I'll be posting pictures out the wah-zoo!"

Moyes asked, "How many points is this worth?"

"C'mon, Moyes! This isn't an assignment! I can't give points in an English class for designing a tattoo.... Actually, now that I think of it, I probably could, but you'd have to write an essay explaining the symbolism, and I know you won't want to be doing that during the last week of school. This is just something those who want to do will do."

Caitlin: "How much extra credit does the winner get?"


Caitlin again: "So, why would anyone waste their time doing this?"

"There is no reward other than having your idea tattooed on my body until the day I die."

Silence. Expectant stares.

"This is not an assignment. It is strictly voluntary, so don't run home and tell mommy and daddy that evil Mr. Thompson is requiring you to submit tattoo designs. Do not fail to complete actual assignments so that you can work on this. Gavin, so help me, if you hand me another drawing I will punch you!" (He returns to his desk, chastened, and begins another design.)

Word spread immediately. By the time the next class came in, it was all they wanted to hear about, and that anticipation actually served the rest of my lessons well. "If we can finish the reading and the assignment, I'll tell you about the tattoo at the end of the period."

By the next day, other teachers were saying, "I hear you're going to get a tattoo." This was always said with a knowing smirk that indicated they were aware that this was just a student-generated rumor. Except it wasn't. I made a promise, and I intended to keep it.

And so the designs began to trickle in over the final weeks of the school year. Gavin submitted four of them within the first week. He was actually a skilled artist, and I liked some of his ideas, but in order to bring them to life on my flesh, it would have required far more space than I was willing to concede. It was his realistic looking tarantula (Juliet) who made her way into the final design.

By the last week of school, I had a folder called Tattoo Thompson with about 15 serious contenders in it. (Special thanks to the close runners up: Madeline Brinkman, Ella Martinez, Raine Knight...and Gavin Cox.) There were a lot of talented artists in the mix, but I needed symbolism and ideas that matched my philosophies. This had become a much more serious venture now that students had invested their efforts. I could see elements of different suggestions that I liked, but when it came to the overall design idea, Lauren's was my favorite:

Now that you have seen a sample of her work, imagine Lauren. Who do you picture? What color is her hair? What is she wearing? Describe her temperament. Now see if your description matches reality: As a ninth grader, Lauren was a fresh-faced, freckled blonde -- the adjective that leaps immediately to mind is cute. And if you talked to her long enough to evaluate her personality, the adjective would be sweet. And if you read as much of her writing as her Honors English teacher did, you'd also include brilliant. And if you visited her family and attended Sunday sacrament meeting at the local ward building with them, you'd have to throw in faithful. There wasn't a single observable Gothic element to anything about Lauren, and yet she designed and drew this for me. That wonderful irony, as much as anything else about this tattoo promise, which began as a lark in one class, is the reason I ultimately decided to go through with it.

Kevin was nothing like Lauren. Kevin was the guy who put the final design on my body with a vibrating tattoo gun. Kevin's entire head and all the visible flesh on his arms and lower legs was covered with ink. He had a girl's name above his eye, spider webs on his neck. I met Kevin near the end of June, when I went in for a consultation at the tattoo parlor. School was out. I was retired. I had my folder and a list of questions. I'd seen Kevin's portfolio, and his work was so realistic that it was hard to believe it was on flesh. Being new to this whole process, I told Kevin my story: a memorial tattoo, designed by my students, on my shoulder so a shirt would cover it. To be honest, Kevin seemed completely unmoved by the symbolism and irony. I did most of the talking. That was my relationship with Kevin: I always did most of the talking, often nervously looking for reassurance. Kevin never provided it. He just answered my questions, scheduled my appointment, and collected my deposit. The following week, over a period of 4 1/2 hours, he put this on me:

Now that it is made flesh, you might be wondering, "Why?! Why would you do this to yourself? It's...hideous!"

Exactly! Just as I hoped. Here's why:

We all have a skull. A skull represents our humanity. We're one of the only creatures with that massive brain cavity, and that skull could be any of us: male, female, or otherwise; black, white, Korean, Mexican; fat or fit; religious or not; rich or poor; good or evil. That skull could be my own, or Kevin's, or Lauren's, or any of the 6000+ students I met in 30 years. And since you don't get a good look at anyone's skull until they die, it is thus a reminder that we're all going to. At the end of every school year, I asked my students to write this on the last page of their journals, one of my final nuggets of wisdom as they headed for high school: "We're all in this together and nobody gets out alive!" The skull represents what I once tried to explain to Katie and Savannah: Because the only thing we know for sure is that we're going to die someday, we need to make the most of the time we have left. And that means taking care of each other while finding purpose and passion for ourselves. We're all in this together and nobody gets out alive.

Also, skulls figure prominently not only in some of my classroom literature, but in all literature. Hamlet's "fellow of infinite jest" was, by the time Hamlet called him that, only a skull. Piles of skulls litter the catacombs where Montressor takes his own jesting counterpart to sample some Amontillado. The skull and crossbones figures prominently in the adventures of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. Yes, the skull is a symbol of death, but it is also a reminder of life. That's what John learns when he visits the cemetery, lies on a grave, and wonders, "Is anyone up there trying to talk to me? Anybody up there?....Anybody down there? If I was lying on somebody's grave, whoever it was could be six feet away. Maybe there was a lot of erosion, and whoever it was was only five feet away...or four. Maybe the tombstone had sunk at the same rate of the erosion, and the body was only a foot away below me -- or an inch. Maybe if I put my hand through the grass, I would feel a finger sticking out of the dirt -- or a hand. Perhaps both arms of a corpse were on either side of me right at that moment. What could be left? A few bones. The skull...." Then later, John says, "I knew I wasn't really wondering about the guy underneath me, whoever he was. I was just interested in what was going to happen to me...." Just like all of us.

The skull cradles the brain, the center of intellect. Teachers know it involves so much more, but the job we're paid to do is help students develop that brain. That could mean solving math problems, writing essays, painting portraits, or dissecting frogs, but I always hoped it meant asking lots of questions: using the old noggin!

The skull in my tattoo is looking left. In the western tradition, we read from left to right, so the left is the past. My teaching career is over, but it was a significant part of my past. Who knows what might end up on my right shoulder in the next 30 years?

The skull and other such imagery figures prominently in heavy metal music, which has always been my favorite: Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden,etc. Even Rush (not so heavy metal, but maybe my favorite band of all time) has an album and a song called "Roll the Bones," which is about taking the chances to make life purposeful rather than spending it all wondering "Why are we here?" And guess how "the bones" are illustrated in the artwork associated with that album and all the concert shirts from that tour. Skulls.

Skulls are scary because they bring to mind all these scary things, so anyone who tattoos a skull on himself must be a badass, right? A scary dude? Maybe on the outside. But inside he's just battling all the same fears and insecurities you are, trying to face his own mortality, conquer the fear that keeps him down, and help you do the same. Here again, a skull seems to be the perfect symbol for a teacher like me.

The other elements within and on "my" skull are equally symbolic. See the Eye of Fire on the left? Those flames arise from the furnaces of hell that stoked my classroom all those years, keeping me and my students sweating and partly delirious as as we tried to teach and learn. But also education is often described in terms of "lighting the fire" of learning, the candle of thought, the heat of passion. Flames radiate not only heat but also light: The light of knowledge helps us conquer our fear of the dark. So, inside the skull of my tattoo, you see the light of learning and knowledge as well as the warmth of love and passion.

The right eye socket contains an eyeball, a gruesome bloody one, which my students would remember from the Eyeball Story, but the eye also implies vision, seeing, believing, understanding. See what I mean? (Did you see what I did there?) These are all things appropriate to a teacher who once almost blinded himself removing a contact lens, but there's more. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the metaphorical "transparent eyeball" which represented taking in nature to transcend to a more meaningful existence, and eyes are said to to be the windows of the soul. Literarily speaking, there are surely as many poetic metaphors about eyes as there are about skulls, so it seems appropriate that my skull should possess an eye.

Around that eye, you see the iconic makeup of Gene Simmons from the band KISS. They were my favorite band when I was in the fifth grade because they were loud, crazy, fire-breathing, blood-spitting, makeup-wearing clowns that everyone else was afraid of, especially parents. I had a lot of KISS paraphernalia from my flaming youth that my wife didn't want in the living room -- that life-sized cutout of Gene Simmons, for example -- so it all made its way to my classroom, which became a storage shed for all my childhood posters, toys, and decorations that no longer fit into the adult world that I lived in when I wasn't at school. My students always knew of my affinity for KISS, and I'm pretty sure many of them, twenty years later, are reminded of my classroom every time they encounter something with KISS on it -- and, trust me, it's on everything: shot glasses, coffins, neckties! Nobody does merchandising like KISS, and I was a sucker for a lot of it, so my students assumed KISS was my favorite band, and I never disabused them of this notion because for a period of time when I was about their age, it was the absolute truth. I owned every KISS album on 8-track, then vinyl, now CD. In fact, I saw KISS in concert five times during my teaching career, and their End of the Road tour comes to town three months after I retire. End of the road, indeed! Because that makeup represented such a part of my teaching career, and because I did, in fact once dawn the makeup before going to school on Halloween, it seems that Gene's demon eye design belongs on my skull, a memento in whimsical celebration of my life in teaching.

"Ah, Juliet, why art thou yet so fair?" Juliet is a tarantula, named of course after the Shakespearean character we were studying when Sheena brought her to me. As of this writing, Juliet is still thriving in my upstairs office, although I suspect she misses her friends in the classroom where she lived for five years. While it is possible that the real Juliet will outlive me (they can survive up to 25 years, I've heard), tattoo Juliet will certainly live on my body as a memento of the impact students had on me over the years. While she was my classroom pet, an animated version of Juliet crept across my classroom website (still does, actually), so she is a symbol my students would recognize. Lauren's design included a spider more like a black widow or a wolf spider like Aragog (another classroom story), which was cool, but one of Gavin's drawings featured a Juliet-like tarantula creeping across an open book, so when I started working with Kevin, he helped me bring the elements together.

Just like everything else in my career, the tattoo is a product of the people I was surrounded by, a reminder, a memorial of good times. The stories we told and the stories yet to come....