Explaining my Tattoo to Kids of the Inner City

Working in a place where everyone and their 30-year-old grandma has a tattoo, it’s been an interesting experience trying to explain mine to them. I thought it was simple to understand. Especially since so many of them understand the significance of a cross.

The difference stemmed from the fact that they think a tattoo should be a part of self expression. It’s very personal. Unless it’s a gang tattoo. Then it’s a part of a group identity and is meant to show loyalty.

“That’s a gang tattoo,” the kids told me in May. “You’re a part of a gang. Or at least a squad.”

“No,” I insisted.

“Yes,” they said. “It’s a tattoo that all these people got to show that their the same, right? That’s a gang tattoo.”

I was baffled (as I often am with these kids), but after I let the idea sink in, I accepted it as a difference in semantics. Since gangs are what they know, their vocabulary to describe what I have reflects that. They don’t understand standing in solidarity with others around the world, but they understand sticking up for a gang brother. And really, the two are the same.

What I mean to say is, I, apparently, am a part of a “gang,” which would make Jesus my gang leader. He’s a very strange sort of gang leader. He says things like, “If someone takes a swing at you, let him take another, too” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.”

It was not the conversation I expected to have over my tattoo, but it has been a fascinating look into the world of my students and a chance to see myself in a new light. I already knew that I was a Citizen of Heaven (Philippians 3:20), an Ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), a Slave of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22), a Prisoner of Christ (Ephesians 3:1), a Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a Child of God (John 1:12) and a Friend of God (John 15:15). But now, I have a new identity:

I’m Christ’s Gang Member (my students).

Standing in Solidarity

I got a tattoo.

In this day and age, that can be a mundane statement, or a damming one. I have been talked out of, scared out of and begged out of getting one many times before. To all of those who make that scrunched up and hurt face, I do apologize. I don’t mean to offend.

But this tattoo means more than a western taboo.

My sister, Jodi on the left. I'm on the right.

My sister on the left. I’m on the right.

What it is:

The Coptic Cross is the symbol of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt and has been tattooed on Christian arms, young and old, for centuries now. In a world of religious violence and oppression, the cross tattoo is a symbol of faith and solidarity. It’s a symbol of fearlessness in the face of  terror. And it’s a family crest.
Why the tattoo:
God has blessed me greatly by allowing me to live in a country where it’s safe to be a Christian. In fact, Christianity is so common place that people have a hard time understanding what trial by fire really means. We read about the martyrs of the Bible and we think, “Huh. What saints!” and move on with our lives of soccer games and TV show, comfortable in knowing that no one is going to imprison us or torture us for saying we believe in Christ. Worst case scenario, we’ll get a scoff and an intellectual challenge, which I always enjoy because it makes my brain tingle.
But elsewhere in the world, the scene of the martyrs is still going on. Christians are being killed, and imprisoned around the world today. Sometimes we hear about it and shake our heads sadly for the people we don’t know–who live so far away we should probably pull out a map to find them, if we weren’t too busy looking at kitty pictures on the internet. We call them brothers and sisters in Christ, but we have very little emotional connection to them. We don’t even know their names. And if we heard them, we’d probably bulk at how foreign it sounds. It’s nothing like Paul or John, whom we proudly name our kids after.
In our world of placid comfort and spiritual lethargy, it is important to have a constant reminder of the turmoil and spiritual war going on in the world–something to keep me mindful and alert, to think beyond my own little bubble to the Christian family members around the world.
That’s what this tattoo is: a reminder of my greater family around the world–all who are suffering for their faith. And it’s a reminder of my own identity. I stand with them.

I Survived!

When I first started this school year in my new school, I was warned by all that it was not going to be easy. I had blindly signed up to teach the hardest class of students who had run off so many teachers before me that they didn’t even know what it was like to learn.

The few teachers that stayed for more than a year were called survivors. The ones that fled before Christmas break were called normal or sane.

Even with all the warnings, I could have never been prepared for what I walked into on that first day and every day after. Between the verbal abuse of the students trying their best to make me cry and the constant threat of physical fights breaking out in my classroom, it was hard for me to maintain order well enough to teach.

But I am happy to say that I am a survivor! I went through the fire of October, February, May, and everything in between, and came out on the other side–alive, exhausted, and maybe just a little more refined… or at least in some ways. My awareness of new profanity has certainly increased as well as my understanding of colloquial terms for topics I have never wished to discuss with anyone. Ever. But in terms of my perseverance and abilities in the classroom, I have become refined.

There has been a lot of learning and teaching and learning even more–on my part, I mean. The students have been fighting against learning all the way. But I have been picking up all kinds of little pieces about their life and culture. Little phrases that they say a hundred times a day have become ingrained in my brain. Things like:

Triflin’ “you’re triflin'” “that’s triflin'” or “they be triflin'”
Petty (used in the same way as triflin’)
“That’s doin’ too much” (meaning I don’t like what you’re doing)
“Why are you wri’in’ so disrespectfully” (meaning sloppy) “That’s just extra” (meaning unnecessary, or more accurately, I don’t want to do this)
Fleek (beautiful)
“Look how you feel!” (You should be embarrassed)
“Rachet”
“Rusty/dusty”
“Turnt up”

One line I really like is when a kid asked me, “Why are we called colored when you guys turn all different colors? You’re red and blue and purple…” as someone who turns splotchy red when emotional, I couldn’t disagree. We’re pretty colorful people. Of course, I tried to tell him that the term refers to the amount of melanin in the skin, but that doesn’t really negate his point.

Most interesting insults that a student has thrown at me all year-
First place: voodoo doll
Second place: cracker star

Best compliment from a student:
weirdest teacher

Best critique from a colleague:
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re like a Mary Poppins. And I like Mary Poppins. But a spoon full of sugar isn’t going to fix these kids.”

I have come a long way since my first day of teaching in the ghetto of Charlotte. My understanding of the kids, of their culture and upbringing, of the most unfortunate circumstances that affect them all, has grown exponentially. As dark as some of those fall months were and as much as I dreaded some mornings, I know that God had me go through it all for a reason. It was His strength that got me through every day. And now that the year is done, I am stoked for my next year teaching in the same school.

Because I am a survivor. I didn’t run away and I have signed on for another year. The same God that gave David his fearless courage to go against a giant has given me the courage to teach the most difficult student (even if I have to do it from a bit of a distance because he likes to pickpocket me.)

I learned so much this year on the west side of Charlotte, but I still have a lot to learn. I think another year is what I need for some more refining. Bring on the fire!

It’s been a long, hard year. I have never been so exhausted. There have been days and weeks where I thought I couldn’t make it through the year. In those weeks, all I wanted was the comfort and loving of Kafka.

DSC00785

Kafka’s lovin’

There have also been days and occasionally weeks where I feel like I’ve got it all figured out… Or at least, handled well enough.

So far this school year, I’ve had four students of mine put in handcuffs, one allegedly in jail at the jaded age of 14. After a threat to my safety and several other death threats to students, another of mine has been sent off to God knows where, never to return.

It’s heartbreaking. Everything in me nearly shattered when I watched the resource officer snap out his handcuffs for a boy that only came up to my shoulder.

But after nearly nine months of this environment, I’ve become a little jaded myself. Praise be to God for giving me a light in the middle of this darkness. Each of my mornings starts off with a piece of sunshine. Even on the dreariest of days, I have small glimpses of hope and sweetness.

This lovely light comes in the form of a girl with round cheeks that light up when she smiles. She’s playful and kind and anxious to help so much so that she’ll get upset if I don’t let her help in every way.

But just as sweet as she is, she can also be explosive (as many of these kids are) and she can cuss up a storm just as good as any of them. But when the dust settles, she always returns to the lovely young lady that brings me joy in my day.

Kaniya 001

Hidden Struggles

In the midst of my  frustration in trying to control a class of 20 students who want to undermine me (and everything else), I sometimes fail to see the struggles that they go through. It’s too easy to feel my own pains and difficulties. Rarely do I catch a glimpse of theirs.

In the middle of my day, I have a student who has always been the top of his class. Sitting in the middle of a classroom full of loud, angry, rebellious children, he was one of two in that class that actually wanted to learn. He worked extra hard to get something meaningful out of my most turbulent class.

I noticed a sudden change in his behavior a few months back. He became withdrawn–keeping his head down and fidgeting with things on his desk. He no longer did his work. I received word that he was attending a counseling group for those who have lost family members.

Then he started acting out. He became loud and problematic–provoking others to fight him and disrupting my teaching. For the first time ever, I had to threaten to call his mom… and then follow through with it. I left several messages for her until one day she showed up at school.

He was having a particularly bad day. Everyone in the class was picking on him for not wearing socks. He had already been the subject of talk for wearing Wal-Mart brand shoes instead of Nike Jordans or the like. As someone who grew up barefoot, I couldn’t even begin to understand how this mattered. But to too many of my students, it means everything.

Before they picked on him about shoes and socks, they had picked on him for how bad he smelled. Thank God, I have a terrible sense of smell, because apparently a number of my students are quite rank. But I never notice. I’ve just been warned that the ones that never take their coats off, are most likely the ones that smell.

I met his mother in the front office during my planning period. He was with her, fidgeting with his hoodie strings in a nervous way. I smiled warmly and began by saying as many positive things as possible, “I know your son is a very bright boy and he was doing so well at the beginning of the year, but I’ve seen a change in him recently and he’s falling behind in work.”

That set the mother off. She turned on him in the front office like she had just heard that he had murdered someone. The boy’s hands were shaking like leaves as he twisted and tied his strings in silence. But he kept his chin up and his eyes on her face as a show of respect. He had a very dignified look about him that masked the fear, which was evident in his hands working the hoodie strings.

His mother tore into him for quite a while as I stood by. I couldn’t betray her parental rights, but it hurt me to watch.

In the hopes of looking for more positive resolutions, I asked, “Is there something I can do to help him focus better in class. Perhaps moving his seat–”

But my plan backfired as she cut me off to turn on him again, saying, “Why is your teacher having to ask me how to keep you on task? You should know how to behave in class. She should not have to ask how to get you to focus.”

After the boy returned to class, I asked the mother, “Is there something going on that I should know about? He didn’t used to act this way. I just want to make sure I’m sensitive to anything.”

“Oh,” She said, as if to shrug it all off, “He’s just upset. See, he used to live in a car with his father, but his father died of cancer, so now he’s living in the shelter with me… but that is NO excuse for his behavior in class.”

Suddenly so many things made sense. I didn’t want to contradict the mother, so I politely said goodbye and made a mental note to only ever say nice things to her about how her son is doing.

My One Word for 2015: Persevere

2014 is over and I am almost halfway through the school year.It has been rough. Through perpetual adversity and sickness,  by the time christmas came, I felt like the little engine that could.  Or maybe a very tired Dory saying, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”
It was very easy for me to pick my one word for 2015. God has been encouraging me with it all through the school year. And through the prayers of those around me, I know I’ve been carried through the trials and hardships of any kind.
Sometimes my perseverance has looked like this:

DSC00746

But a lot of times, it felt like this:

DSC00748

And more often, this:

DSC00750

Recently, it’s been like this:

DSC00751

But as God promises, perseverance leads to hope. My hope has been to be this:

DSC00754

When hope dwindles, I end up curled in a corner like this:

DSC00755

But God’s strength and your prayers pick me up again and perseverance pushes me forward.

So now, as I head into the second half of the school year, and a brand new calendar year, my aim is to persevere–with my hope in Christ to never leave me empty and understanding that perseverance brings maturity.

Romans 5:3-5

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

 

James 1:2-4

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

The Man with the Teardrop Tattoos

He had three teardrops outlined on his cheeks and five stars spread across his face like a constellation. He towered over me in a way that would be intimidating if I had met him anywhere else. But this was a classroom and he was a caring parent of one of my students who had come on his own initiative to see how his son was doing in my class. He was fresh out of prison and anxious to be a part of his kid’s life.

I called him on multiple occasions when his son was acting up in class. It’s not that his son is a “bad kid.” He’s just very talkative. And hyper. And goofy. And likes to play fight in class; and rap in class; and do anything except his work, really. So his dad came in twice to check on him and have a conversation about his behavior. As they say in school, “His dad don’t play.”

“I know he’s is smart,” He said one day in the cafeteria. “I was the same way. I had a full scholarship to college too–on academics, not sports. But my temper got me in trouble… I want my son to do better. I don’t want him to end up like I did.”

That stuck with me. In a school like this, there are so many parents who just don’t care and others who are just worn out. But this man was adamant about his son’s education. And poured out his pent-up hope on his future.

Shortly after that encounter, I was given the unfortunate news that he had died. I had a gut feeling that it was a violent death. The story ended up on the local news. He had been jumped by gang members and shot to death in a convenience store.

His son was out of school for 2 weeks. When he came back, he drew a teardrop on his cheek with a sharpie.

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