My city is small. My school is huge. I teach fifteen sections of English Composition each academic year, and I have been teaching here for ten years. There is math in there somewhere, but the long and short of it is that I see students everywhere. Everywhere. I see them in malls and doctor’s offices. They wait on me in restaurants, ring up my groceries, and sell me shoes. Also, they tattoo my husband. (Well, one of them tattooed my husband one time, but I’m going for syntactic symmetry here.)
Not long ago, when I accompanied my spouse to a tattoo shop to get his first (discreet, beautiful, and certainly-not-midlife-crisis-induced) ink, I thought I recognized the young man who took the appointment. When he introduced himself, I was sure of it, and as he began to work, I finally placed him.
“Caleb! Now I remember you. You were in my comp class a few years ago.” Truth was, it had been more than a few years—like maybe five or six.
“Really? You remember me? I can’t believe that.” He looked somewhat stunned and mildly embarrassed. “Yeah, school was not really my thing.”
There are plenty of community college students who would say the very same. Many are there because a high school guidance counselor told them they were “not college material,” or because they hit the wall at a four-year institution. Often they just have no idea what else to do with themselves, and taking some classes seems like as good a place as any to start. So while most of them achieve their career and educational goals, it’s not unusual for me to see students several years after they’ve been in my class, in jobs that clearly do not require a degree. Like Caleb, they often seem sort of apologetic, if they acknowledge our acquaintance at all.
“That’s okay,” I told him. For some reason I wanted to reassure him that I did not take it personally. “It’s not everybody’s thing.”
We exchanged pleasantries over the buzz of the tattoo gun, and as I watched him scratch the design into my husband’s right deltoid, I remembered the profile he had written of his best friend, more than half a decade earlier. I read thousands of papers a year, many of them fine but forgettable. One of his came back to me, though, in bits and pieces: his weird and wonderful style, his eye for detail, the vividness with which he captured his subject. He was not only a good writer, but a talented one.
When Caleb was about halfway finished with the tattoo, he turned off the gun and sat up to stretch. Then he took a big sip of Mountain Dew, shook out his cramped hand, and took a deep breath.
“This is the hard part,” he said. “I hate circles.”
At the center of the design (a stylized sunburst with Icarus a little too close by) was a perfect circle about the size of a nickel. I think the three of us held our breath as he traced it slowly. He’d do part of the arc, stop and breathe, then bend to his work again. When the circle was completed, we all let out a sigh and started joking and talking again as he finished the flames, put final touches on the wings, and filled in the silhouette of the mythical man. It was perfect.
I wanted to ask him if he ever wrote anymore, but that seemed intrusive, maybe even insulting. His English 111 portfolio probably hit the recycling bin years ago, but his ink on my husband’s skin is often the last thing I see when I close my eyes at night.