“Is that new ink?” the cashier asked.
“Yeah,” I said, holding my arm out.
“Wow,” he said, “slap it for luck?”
I didn’t pull away. “Nah,” he smiled, “tattoo joke.”
I smiled back, picked up my tray of food. Thinking, noob!, and, now I know a new thing. Old dog, new tricks, and so forth.
“It’s beautiful,” he added.
A few weeks later, at a poetry reading (full disclosure: mine), I was mingling with the small crowd of people, most of them older than me. Several asked about the tattoo, and to my surprise, eagerly told their own stories. One woman showed the image above her ankle that she’d gotten in honor of her son, dead much too young. Others’ stories were similarly moving, not at all the stuff of mythology — the wild night permanently drawn on the skin, the regret-soaked letters spelling out a temporary passion. I guess people might not be so eager to share those. But it’s fascinating how the image on my arm has invited an intimacy with strangers that, shy introvert that I am, I have rarely experienced. How often I’ve wished for a “way in” to conversation, out of my usual tongue-tied awkwardness. But of course, that’s not why I got a tattoo. It’s just an unexpected benefit.
Almost a year ago, I quit not only my job, but my career. For 25 years, I had been an English teacher. I taught in universities as a grad student and a contractual instructor, and in a summer program, where my students were bright middle-schoolers. For the last decade or so, I taught and sometimes lived at a college-prep boarding school. I was all in. Until I wasn’t.
At first, I had found that teaching was absorbing, a never-ending series of problems to solve. It was stimulating intellectually, and it also gave me a “way in” to meeting all kinds of people. Moreover, it felt like work I could tell people I did without having to defend its value. Writing, always my primary focus as a student, felt to me like an indulgence, something I needed to prove I deserved to do. Despite studying with wonderful writers and writing several manuscripts of poetry and passing tests and even publishing a little here and there, I could not ever call myself a writer. When someone would say, “Oh, are you a poet?” I would stumble over words. Maybe I’d choke out an apologetic confirmation: “um, yeah. I write sometimes.” As maligned and unappreciated as teaching often is, it was still far easier for me to say I was a teacher. After all, I could prove it: someone had hired me. I had students. I could talk curriculum, pedagogy. And as I grew more comfortable and experienced in my teacher-skin, being a writer felt like wearing an outfit that broke the dress code. I’ll get back into it someday, I told myself, burying it in a drawer.
But something happened while I was a high-school teacher. It was gradual. Early on, I tried to do everything right. I toed lines. I enforced and complied with a sexist dress code. I noticed that female athletic teams were routinely dubbed “Lady [mascot],” while male teams owned the designation “[mascot],” without qualification. I noticed that more boys than girls held positions in student government and that more administrative positions at the school were held by men. I grew vocal over time, but it seemed to matter little. Despite my dedication to the organization and how “well-behaved” I’d tried to be, it seemed I hadn’t earned any right to have a say in its culture. I felt itchy and demoralized.
And suddenly, after years of putting my head down and trudging steadily along, swallowing anger and frustration and my sense of injustice like a nauseating medicine, I found I couldn’t do it anymore. My partner and I, looking at each other from either side of 50, agreed that we needed to change our lives, not just as a trial run, but for real. So, we plunged.
At the end of the school year, I cut my hair short and stopped dying the gray back to brown. A little later, I dabbed some blue into the gray. Then, I got bold purple flashes, some pops of pink and blue. Back when you first saw people — mostly teens — with brightly colored hair, I’d admired it, but had been too timid. People will think I’m trying too hard, I thought. I’m too old for that. I didn’t ask myself then where I was getting those ideas. But the more I spoke out against the sexism I saw at my school, the more I began to resent the box that I’d confined myself to. Bias is at its most powerful when people internalize it and police themselves. It’s when you become aware of the oppressive ideas you’ve internalized that you can root them out and fight them off.
And so, for my forty-ninth birthday, I got a tattoo. It doesn’t have a staggeringly profound meaning in itself, although I think it’s marvelous to carry a piece of art on my body. In truth, it was as simple as this: I have always admired beautiful tattoos on other people, but have said to myself, “no, I’d never get one. It’s just not for me.” If pressed, I might echo some clichés: “I don’t want something permanently on my skin. I don’t want it to look terrible when I’m old. I don’t want to be judged.” Those ideas never belonged to me. I was unable to own up to — or even to recognize — what I really thought. The dress-code had told me who I should be, and I’d obeyed.
Now, my hair is pink and blue and purple and brown and gray. On my right forearm, two cardinals perch on a pine branch against a blue sky. I’m writing. I’m a writer. It may take me some time to get used to wearing my true colors so openly, but I won’t be going back incognito. Not in this life.
“Hey! I love your hair! You’re so brave!” A couple of women shout at me from across Costco, giggling.
Brave? I think. Pink streaks in graying hair is brave?
“You should do it if you want to!” I call back. “It’s just hair — you can change it if you don’t like it!”
Not as brave as I want to be, I think. Not as brave as I wish I’d been all along. But I’m trying.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.