At a very young age, I was not like other children. My actions, reactions, likes, dislikes, and general appearance set me apart, marked me as different. My own private segregation. Even during grammar school, children are aware of the differences between themselves and those around them. It’s during this time that we either develop the strengths to embrace the differences, or the insecurities about them that can plague us the rest of our lives.
One day in the second grade our teacher was talking about colors. I haven’t a clue why, don’t remember why, and don’t particularly care why. To show us the difference in colors, this woman decided to line us up against the wall in the classroom by hair color. The blondes first, the lone redhead, followed by a few sandy brown haired kids, a brunette, and a black-haired East Indian girl. I promptly tucked myself behind the brunette.
The next thing I knew, my teacher’s boney hand was wrapped around my arm and I was reordered behind the East Indian girl: NiCole, your hair is black, don’t you know that? She made me feel like an idiot, as if I was oblivious to the color of my own hair. I argued with this woman over hair color for five minutes until finally realizing the magnitude of her sheer stupidity in not knowing the difference between dark brown and black. She didn’t care. In her eyes, the East Indian girl and I looked the same, or perhaps just not like the other kids.
This story recently came up in conversation with a friend who posed an unnerving question: Do you think that’s why you have chosen to mark yourself [with tattoos], so YOU have control over what sets you apart?
The answer is yes, well, sort of. I began getting inked at twenty-six with tattoos that were relatively small and easily hidden. They were a private, passive-aggressive rebellion against the conservative life I was masquerading around in at the time.
As my life has evolved, so have my tattoos. I’ve been misjudged because of them, been high-fived for their high visibility, and was once asked to cover them just in case someone might be offended by them possibly maybe. Really.
The tattoos are mostly literary in nature and consequently invite people’s inquiry, which is difficult for an introvert. Though more visible, they are still for me; permanent sticky notes to persevere, stark truths about life and love, the nonsensical poetry of a caterpillar. They are part of me, literally and figuratively, and my friend’s question showed me a truth about the coping mechanism I’d developed in how I’ve chosen to present myself as an adult. He’s good. Smartypants.
Though we have come a long way as a society in accepting our differences, we still make knee-jerk assumptions about people based on their appearance, whether that be through tattoos, piercings, hair color, or race. So long as we continue to line each other up against our own idealistic second grade hair-color charts, there will be those obstinate few who ardently say I don’t belong where you think I belong.