The tattoos that made James O’Connell fully a part of the community in the Caroline Islands were the same markings that isolated him as a freak when he returned to New York. Reflecting on his story, I found that though I have not been tattooed in the slightest, I too have physical “markings,” if you will, that can mean my separation or my inclusion.
On a trip to West Baltimore to see the Edgar Allen Poe house, a group of CCSJ staff and I were stopped by some women outside their houses on the street of the Poe house. They were watching their children play. “Ya’ll better be careful on this street,” they said and pointed, “It’s over there.” Just by looking at the group of us college students, they knew that we were headed to the Poe house. What do I have, “white-privateschool-middleclass-IdoNOTbelonghere” tattooed on my forehead? And why should we be careful, while their children play outside? “There were shootings this morning,” one said. While I watched them play outside, I felt like a foreigner in the city I grew up in. As O’Connell demonstrated when he returned to New York with tattoos, it’s easy to feel as if you are the “other” when you have markings that no one else around you has. So what are these markings that set me apart?
Well for one, its certainly clear that I’m a white female. My cleanliness, clothing, accessories, even my hairstyle might suggest that I’m middle-class. I’m not sure exactly what the women picked up on, but one look at me, and they knew I wasn’t from a West Baltimore neighborhood. I had signs that marked me as a foreigner. But a couple miles away in the Whole Foods downtown, I am accepted as a part of the community. I even experimented, trying to be different: wearing sweats, sporting greasy hair, and taking full advantage of every food sample that the grocery store had to offer, the workers at Whole Foods had no suspicions about my appearance or behavior. I was clearly a native to that territory.
Though O’Connell’s tattoos might be slightly more conspicuous, we all have distinct physical markings that show who we are and where we’ve come from. IN fact, O’Connell’s other obvious traits that made him separate from the Islander community (his skin color, appearance, etc.) may have been one of the reasons the tattoos would have been necessary. I often think about my “markings” when I visit Cristo Rey. There, I am clearly set apart from the students, because of my age and race, but also because I don’t have a uniform and I’m dressed in business casual and I have a plastic nametag that says “Ms. Rose Miola.” I find that these differences contribute to a separation between my tutee and I, probably so that the students respect me. Yet this separation makes me uncomfortable. It seems to reinforce this way of thinking that I want to avoid: this superior-inferior, teacher-student relationship in which one person (me) clearly knows more and is higher than the other. I feel like I’m saying, “Here I am, this white preppy girl, coming in to show you how to do your homework.” I feel that service should be different than this, that something about my approach needed to change. As Rachel Neohman encourages in her article “Helping Versus Serving,” I want to engage with the other on a human level. Rather than solely focusing on my tutee’s struggles, I want to connect with my own struggles, and then serve my tutee out of my own darkness.
The answer is relationship. Not a relationship of superiority, but a friendship. Asking my tutee questions about her life. Joking. Repetitive visits. Complimenting her style in accessories, while at the same time ignoring her difference in appearance. Sure, O’Connell and I both have experienced the situation in which our physical markings allow us to be accepted or isolated, inferior or superior. Yet, I imagine that the important part for O’Connell’s tattoo was not the tattoo itself on face value, but rather the relationships it represented. The tattoo was a physical manifestation of the fact that he entered into a community, engaging with the people on a human level, sharing in their custom.
There’s no question that because of our different life experiences I have markings that are different from my tutee, Ashley. Yet though I will never wear bear the markings of having grown up in Baltimore city and I will never wear a Cristo Rey uniform, I can still enter into that world with relationship. Maybe as I share my laughter, thoughts, compliments, and instruction on Physics, I will take on a part of their culture.