Notes from The Professor

November 10, 2010

Caleb: the artist

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 9:01 pm
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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.

*An edited version of this post was featured on The Story with Dick Gordon, an American Public Media production that airs on NPR stations nationwide. Please listen here.



  1. Beautiful.

    Comment by Darby — November 10, 2010 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  2. love

    Comment by Sara — November 10, 2010 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

  3. I got the tatoo’s in the service, I still remember my mother’s voice on the front porch saying on the day I left for boot camp …. “And don’t come home with your arms full of tatoo’s like your father.”

    And you know the rest of it dontcha?

    My midlife kinky thing was an ear ring. My wife swore up and down that if I got one, she would never go anywhere with me. So I got to thinking about it. “It is a little pain. It is going to cost me some coin. Maybe it is worth it?”

    So I got it.

    She stayed home for quite sometime after that, but she is back traveling around with me now. I never attended college, one of the biggest regrets of my life, but that is another story altogether.

    Another great post. You inspire me (which I don’t know … Is that a good thing or bad?)

    Remember a vet today.


    Comment by ldsrr91 — November 11, 2010 @ 6:13 am | Reply

    • It’s never too late to go to college. Do it! I’ve taught many a “second act” student and many a vet. (Stay tuned and you’ll hear about some of them.) And thank you, both for your comment and your service.

      Comment by Professor X — November 11, 2010 @ 8:41 am | Reply

  4. A multi-talented young man. Even if no one wants a second tattoo, maybe you’ll cross paths again. I’d risk the chance of embarrassment to offer an encouraging word.

    Comment by Sue — November 11, 2010 @ 2:01 pm | Reply

  5. […] was not a great writer.  She had plenty to say, but sentence boundaries eluded her.  Fortunately, Caleb was in her group:  a lanky, heavily tattooed, copiously pierced, Doc Marten wearing artist and a […]

    Pingback by Irene « Notes from Professor X — February 20, 2011 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

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