Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My Tattoo

I have a tattoo.

These days that would not be considered a particularly shocking revelation.  However, my mark not only predates the current body-ink fashion trend, it actually stands in sharp contrast to the aboriginal tribal markings, inscrutable chinese characters, butterflies, kitty cats, skulls and the many variants on 'Suzy' and 'Mom' that adorn now so many acres of skin.  My tattoo is, contrary to the trend, small, remarkably discrete and personally meaningful.

Discretion notwithstanding, my tattoo is actually visible, if not obvious.  What's more, it is actually meaningful, though that too would not be obvious until explained.  And, over the years I've found numerous occasions to explain it, having showed it to more than a few people.  I should be clear on this point and say that I have always showed my tattoo off in public places, and to willing viewers--none of whom, I am happy to report, has found it objectionable in any way.  In fact, most have found it to be instructive, which is the only reason I show it off anyway.

I got my ink back in 1973.  This was a day when bikers, not high-school kids, were the ones getting tattoos.  This was also before there was a tattoo parlor on every corner in SoCo, so I did it myself.  No, it's not a prison tat, and I didn't do it on a dare or while on a drunken binge.  To be clear, I've never been to prison, don't 'do' dares and though I may have been drunk on occasion, I have never been so inebriated as to willingly subject myself to the kind of pain required to get a pseudo-tribal marking of any kind.

I have, however, been so frustrated and angry with myself that, for one brief moment, I was sufficiently oblivious to the pain.  In an unplanned instant, in one brief and terrible stroke, I managed to make the mark that I carry to this day.  Actually, it was more of a stab.

The place was Austin High, the time was my senior year, and the event was a failing six-week grade in Frau S_____'s French class.  Now, this was certainly not the first F I'd ever gotten.  Nor was it the first F I'd gotten in that very subject.  This F was especially humiliating however, because after weeks of trying, the failing grade felt like incontrovertible proof that learning French was something I could and would never accomplish.

It wasn't just the F.  It was a confirmation of Frau S____'s complete lack of confidence in me.  It affirmed my fear that she was right.  Some people, she had said, are simply not capable of learning a language.

Though she didn't say this about me or to me directly, I got the message.  Especially when those not-so-subtle jabs were delivered just at the moment when I was perusing my latest red ink-stained homework or test in class.  It didn't help that her passion for French culture was absent from her teaching.  It seemed obvious to me that the only reason she had become a public school teacher was because she claimed to be a native speaker of French.

I had my doubts about that.  She did, to a neophyte, appear to be able to speak French, but given the facts that she did so with the thickest of possible German accents, that she was also the German teacher, and that she insisted, even in French class, upon being called 'Frau' were all clear indicators that she was anything but a Francophile.  This I knew even though I didn't know that her claim to be French was based upon her having been born in Alsace, where residents, even though they are officially living in France, still consider themselves to be a part of Germany.

All of Frau S_____'s prejudices aside, I must take personal responsibility for my failure.  It was my own inability to conquer the language that made it difficult for me to learn French.  Herein was my whirlpool of despair.  Difficult, it might have been, but not impossible it was not.

However, impossible is exactly what I thought it was on that day in the spring of 1974.  "I'll never learn French!"

With that thought in mind and a rapidograph in my right hand, I stabbed the sharp needle-like point of the pen deep into the very center of my left palm.  Just like a proper tattoo needle, the pen injected a small drop of ink in between the layers of my skin, where it remains--barely visible--to this day.

I don't make habit of showing people my tattoo, but it certainly has been useful as a succinct if somewhat offbeat example of how wrong it can be to make an assumption like I did that fateful day.  You see, even though I am not obliged nor inclined to do so under all but the most extraordinary circumstances, today I can actually speak French.

It turns out that I am not one of those people who cannot learn new languages.

In fact, it turns out that there are no such people.  It turns out that anyone--even babies--can learn a language.  Or two.  In fact, it turns out that the reason that babies can (and do) learn language is because they are babies.  They don't know any better.  They've never been told that some people just never learn to speak a language.  They just do.  We encourage them, of course, which is the difference between the way we treat children and adult learners.

Now, to her credit, Frau S_____ was not the only French teacher who made learning more difficult that it might have been, and she was actually a most generous teacher, at the end of the day.  Eventually, she gave me a passing grade for the course, and thankfully so, for due to her ultimate indulgence, I was allowed to graduate by the very thinnest of margins.

Another reason for being grateful had to do with entirely unforeseen events, not the least of which was my little tangle with the law year after I gave myself that tattoo, I found myself living in Paris, holding out my subtly marked hand to allow shopkeepers to sort through the change that I could not identify nor pronounce.

It took a remarkable French teacher to break the spell cast upon me by both my Texas teachers of the language.  His name was M. D_____, and we called him the Dancing Bear because it was his habit to begin every class by singing (and sometimes dancing to) a French folk song.  "Au jardin de mon pere, les lillas sont fleurie..."  Contrast this with the only French song I had ever heard in Texas, La Marseillaise, and you get the idea about the difference in the two approaches.

When I entered M. D_____'s French class, I was one of the worst students, unable to read or write, and virtually unable to speak as well.  I have to say though (not without some pride) that it wasn't long before I had made enough progress to be one of the better students in the class.  Not the best, of course, but certainly better than the worst.  In fact, the by the end of the term, the worst students were the formerly best students to begin with--those straight A girls from high school who could decline their verbs but couldn't muster the courage to ask a French person where the bathroom--erm, toilet--could be found.

So, now, whenever anyone tells me that they are one of those people who just can't learn a language, I show them my tattoo.

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Susan said...

I thought I knew you well back then, but I don't remember this incident.

Greyghost said...

Actually, I'll bet you do remember! It was the day that Frau S stormed into the Pub Office and led me back to class, almost literally by my ear. She really did care about her students, even if her love of things French was less than passionate.

Dylan Ishmael said...

Love this entry!