Skin deep?

In my line of work, it’s ironic to notice someone because of his tattoos. I say “ironic” because most every one of my students has tattoos. But these were different.

My semester — giving supplemental instruction to trade and tech students at a community college – began a couple of weeks ago, and while observing an orientation given to an auto body class, I noticed two men sitting together who were covered in white supremacy tattoos – tattoos that had clearly been scratched through years of prison time. And these weren’t young guys – they were middle-aged, and not only covered in prison tattoos, but prison muscles as well.

Let me say that during my time at this job, I’ve worked with some bad dudes, but these guys were clearly in a different league – the kind of people that you’d want nowhere near anyone you care about. Moreover, just to illustrate the visibility and clarity-of-message of these men’s tattoos, they both had “white” scrolled down one tricep, and “power” down the other; one had a giant swastika on the back of his neck; and one had an SS skull and crossbones on the side of his neck.

Also, let me back up a minute and say that I’ve worked with plenty of ex-cons. In fact, some of my favorite students from last semester had been previously incarcerated. It is also noteworthy that I’ve never asked anyone what they were jailed for, so I’ve always assumed the best regarding my students’ legal troubles – I blindly imagine non-violent property or drug offenses.

As someone who works primarily one-on-one with students, I often probe their tough-guy eyes for degrees of kindness as we discuss long division or the importance of understanding decimals. In reality, it’s hard for me not to empathize with some of the hardest cases I come across. I am extremely thankful to not be on the other end of my instruction (not that my instruction is bad…you know what I mean!) – I accept that the only difference between many of these men and me is that I had parents who instilled within me a degree of self-worth.

These things said, I wasn’t incredibly jazzed when one of my neo-Nazi friends strolled into my center on Saturday – a day that I worked alone – seeking his assessment-test scores, and some help getting started on a DLA (directed learning activity).

His test scores were average among my students when it comes to computational math and reading, but his applied math score was higher than average – a sign that he’s a smart fellow who’s been on the wrong path: i.e., rotting in prison for some potentially heinous crime.

I brought him into the classroom to work on some basic math, which he picked up right away, and more enthusiastically than most. He had the eager-to-please attitude of someone who’d been institutionalized for some time, and that’s when I felt my tensed muscles loosen. I started feeling sorry for this man who literally had hate-symbols drawn into his face. But I pulled myself back: “What if I weren’t white?” I wondered. “Would he have rejected my instruction?”

I noticed him glancing at my tattoos, as many of my students do, and clearly deciphering that mine were done in a shop, and not by a prison scratcher with a Walkman motor and a guitar string.

I sat and worked with the student in the same respectful manner that I normally do. He stayed for two DLAs (about two hours), and thanked me as he gathered his belongings to leave. I walked him out of the center, and showed him how to sign himself out on the computer.

As he was leaving his friend from class came in, the one with the swastika on his neck. “Sorry that I missed you this morning,” he said to him. “Next week we should make sure to come together.”

I repeated the same procedure with the other student, and we sat in the same chairs as I had with his friend. He was equally eager and respectful, and again, I wondered the same type of questions: “How will the other students – most of whom are not white – react when they notice these guys’ tattoos?” “How will he react when Matt – the gay, African American secretary – is back next Saturday?” “How can I sit so close, and feel such empathy for someone who would hate pretty much everything about me and my loved ones?”

I kept reeling myself back in for the hour that he and I worked together, and as I did with his friend, I walked him to the door. He stuck out his hand in appreciation, and I shook it hard and said, “I didn’t do a thing. You did all the work.” He looked surprised by my kind words, and left. I reminded him on his way out to practice his multiplication tables, and he promised that he’d do his best to find the time.

I watched President Obama’s education speech this morning, and was moved. I thought about my role as an instructor, and how everyone deserves a second chance. I thought about the “white power” students and how crazy it was that I was inspired to help them through the words of our first African American president.

I figured that I wouldn’t see the students again until Saturday, but when I showed up for work today, one of them was sitting in the classroom working by himself. I approached him and interrupted to ask if he’d studied his multiplication table like he promised, and he said, “Some.” But more important to me than any advances he may make in math is the fact that on an 85-degree day, he was wearing a long-sleeved sweatshirt with a collar to cover the swastika on the back of his neck and the “white power” on his arms.

I wondered about his motivation.  Did he have a job interview?  Did he fear for his safety?  Is he ashamed of his past?

As with my other students, I’ll naively assume the best.

19 responses to “Skin deep?”

  1. ks says:

    Wow. Very touching. I don’t think you are being naive in assuming the best about these students you encounter. You are giving them the benefit of a doubt they’ve probably not enjoyed much if ever in their lives. It’s why you are connecting with them and it’s why you may be able to help them.

  2. [not ks] says:

    [spam redacted]

  3. Dave says:

    Something I miss about teaching is how it gives your the opportunity (or virtually forces you) to get past your initial judgments of your students and deal with them as complex individuals. This post was a really great reminder of that process.

  4. Marleyfan says:

    Loved it, Loved it, Loved it.

    Plus I agree with ks…

  5. A White Bear says:

    I’ve had quite a few students out of prison, and one of them ended up writing an amazing paper about it. He described a lot of the nuanced problems of being there and how it makes one feel really racially hostile, sometimes for the first time. To survive in prison, he wrote, you have to get used to the fact that you are defined by race and by your position in the sexual economy, and if you mess with the racial categories, you’re more likely to be sexually abused. He ended up working in the laundry alone with one of the white-power guys known for being a rapist, and, as a young Hispanic guy, he quickly learned how to show no weakness, but be silently tough in that situation, and got out without being raped. But for those guys who’d been there a long time, racism and threatening behavior that also started as a defense mechanism had clearly turned into a big part of who they are.

    In his paper, he wrote that it was a big struggle to come back into the real world and not think everyone around him was constantly thinking of him as (a) Hispanic, and (b) a potential victim. But he also wondered what would happen if and when those guys with the white-power tattoos got out. How do you get a job, or even learn in a class, if you have erased everything about yourself except for your race and your ability to rape or beat people up?

    Acting “hard” is what saves your life, until, suddenly, you get out and acting hard is what keeps you from getting anything done. I’m not saying the white-power guys aren’t racists–they are–but that behavior of showing up to tutoring with all your tattoos showing may be one way of expressing fear. In an uncomfortable situation, you revert back to intimidation.

    The only thing I’ve known to do when a tough guy bares his teeth at me (in whatever way) is just to get on with the lesson. My student who wrote the paper came to a conference with me and said it’s really hard to unlearn that he’s nothing more than his race, and his ability to rape or be raped. But he watched his sister graduate from college and thought, people think of her as a person. I want to think of myself as a person, too.

    He’d only been in prison for a little over a year. I can’t imagine how hard that transition must be for someone in for 10 or 20.

  6. Literacy's Pal says:

    You and I talked about this the other day, but these extra details are fascinating–and, of course, I kept imagining how I would handle something like this myself, or whether I could be as graceful about it as you (doubtful)… A really interesting post, LHD…

  7. Another really delicate issue here is the tension between the responsibility you have to him as his tutor, and the responsibility you have to all the other students who come in who have the right to a non-threatening learning environment. If his slogans (should they be uncovered next time) scare others away from jump-starting their education with you, must he be removed from the situation? And if so, won’t that be one more door closed in his face after the inevitable failed job interviews he has in his future, one step closer to falling back onto the same path?

  8. A White Bear says:

    Revising my 4 and thinking more about the post, I also wanted to say that it must be really hard to walk around with these tattoos that are constantly introducing you to people before you can speak. Those tattoos are saying something that these guys wanted them to say while they were in prison, most likely to say “Don’t come anywhere near me.” Unsurprisingly, people outside of prison are going to react that way too. But it sounds like these guys are trying hard to get help, get work, get back into society. At any rate, your instincts seem dead-on.

    Another thing I remember about that student’s paper was that he said the most effective sentence he had in prison was “I’m just here for a little while.” When people asked him what gang he was in or who he was affiliated with, he just said he was only there for a little while. Mostly, people respected that. A few even clapped him on the shoulder and told him to go to college and make something of himself. They seemed to know that throwing yourself into the life meant closing off opportunities forever.

  9. L.H. Dogfight says:

    Thank you all for your really thoughtful comments.

    AWB, it’s always such an honor when you join us here at the whatsit, as you usually bring the conversation to the next level.

    As far as the potentially heinous acts that these men committed while in prison, I understand that much of it has to do with the culture of self-preservation. And I do think that for many, threatening/racist tattoos has something to do with that. However, as I was sitting so close to these men in an essentially deserted area of campus, I did have to turn off the voice in my mind that was telling me that if I was in prison with them that I might have easily been sexual prey. (If nothing else, it was interesting to consider something so foreign to me but so commonplace to so many women.) Also, something that I didn’t mention in the post is that I’ve been working with another new student who was in prison for ten years, and who has given me more than one flirtatious glance — fine in a club, but kind of scary when the guy is much bigger and was imprisoned for who-knows-what.

    Gal: I know that their potential chilling-affect on the other students is one of your main concerns, but I’ll have to deal with that situation if and when it arises. The fact that one of them was in my center with his tattoos covered is a great sign that he is sensitive to that potentiality.

    Dave, our president would want you to teach again.

  10. g.a. says:

    Loved this post.

  11. J-Man says:

    wow. really interesting topic, LHD, and very well articulated. I commend you for keeping your cool and looking beneath the ink. Do you think you might ever get or take the opportunity to ask them about what their tattoos represent to them now? It would be really interesting to hear their response. Of course I realize that it’s incredibly naive to think that they would be able to have a reasonable conversation about it, in the same way that you can sit there and civilly tutor them in math. But maybe.

  12. ks says:

    regarding comment #2: WTF? I did not write that part about the fav. blogger so…anyone care to explain? Are comments being annotated? This seems pretty uncool.

  13. Darryl Q. says:

    12: Considering that your name is linked to some skin product page, I’d say that your second comment is some type of spam thing.

    Sorry that Literacy isn’t your favortie blogger…

  14. J-Man says:

    That’s so creepy…..

  15. Tim says:

    So much to say and think about based on this post. I admire your ability to keep cool, LHD. I do wonder how these students would have responded had they been confronted with a racially “other” tutor. I wonder, too, about how those tutors might have responded.

    Moreover, do you feel just a teensy bit like you betrayed your own convictions in being so liberal as to accept these guys as “regular people”? I mean, I think and hope that I would have done the same thing in your shoes — looked them in the eye, dealt with the task at hand, and done my job — but I’d also be twisting and tying myself in knots over the moral ramifications. They do deserve to have a shot at a better life.

    Having gotten out of the joint they should not have the doors to a college education automatically slammed on them. However, what their tats represent is some of the most vile, contemptible thought and action that human beings can and have mustered. Shouldn’t people who display that kind of hatred on their bodies be called to account for it?

    It’s not your job, of course, to do so, and you would most likely have been way out of line if you had said anything to them. At the same time, isn’t it everyone’s role to work against such hatred? I hope that the education you are helping to provide them is a source for real change in their lives, and cuts the hold that white supremacist ideology has had on them.

    Thank you for sharing this story. I look forward to more developments.

  16. Dave says:

    Wow, that’s weird about comment 2. It was in the spam queue, but it said “ks” so I approved it. I’ll fix that.

  17. This is beautiful in feeling and articulate thought. It brings back the deepness that I love about TGW–we’ve been fluffy for most of the summer.

  18. L.H. Dogfight says:

    Thanks again to all for the kind words. I will keep you posted if and when new developments arise.

    Tim, I did think about the potential moral ramifications of educating these guys. For example, one said that he wanted nothing to do with computers when I brought him into the wired classroom, and I stopped myself short of saying what I usually do when students demonstrate tech-trepidation: “if you want to get a good-paying job, you’re going to have to learn how to use computers at least at a basic level.” But I didn’t say that because I imagined him getting connected to hate groups via the Internet.

  19. N. says:

    Our class was very close. 40 of us started together in the 1st grade and about 20 of us graduated together. We were always very close, still are. We lost about 20 to drugs, guns, AIDS, and prisons. We all lived in the same neighborhood and went to the same pre-school. We started 1st grade with ribbons in the girl’s hair, cute suits for the boys, flowers, and the bright opportunities for everyone. When perestroika hit, our upscale neighborhood suddenly turned into the ghetto, our parents became members of various mafia organization, drugs flooded the streets, AIDS followed with the dirty needles, which covered every campus, anarchy became our mother, and vodka became our father. Desperate times call for desperate measures. We were kids, who were simply coping with mayhem — each of us to the best we knew. My dear sweet friend, who loved theater and poetry, is doing 17 years in a high security prison with no way to get a hold of him. My desk-mate of 12 years overdosed. My close friend got beaten to death. My boyfriend was found in a plastic bag cut into pieces. All of us walked the thin line, those of us who made it through were simply more fortunate, better fit…

    I believe that those of us, who are better fit (better raised, better educated, have the resources, or the finances), have the responsibility to re-direct those, who don’t know any better. Maybe they will learn their lesson, maybe not, but we cannot turn our back worrying about potential ramifications, because we do not fully understand what these people have been through and what motivated them to do what they did. We also cannot know what’s inside their hearts and deny the possibility that they made a mistake in the past and have changed since. This post reminded me of District 9. Not so much because of the apparent issues it deals with (in the most unconventional way, I must add) such as: apartheid, xenophobia, racism, blah, blah, the obvious stuff, but the philosophical meaning that I felt, underlined the whole movie: there is a very ugly side to the human nature and a very benevolent one. One, however, cannot fully understand either, until he puts himself in that person’s shoes.