I first noted them in 1996. I was about to begin my lecture when a young woman in the front row said, "What do you think of my new tattoos, Dr. Schwartz?"
I resist the temptation to ogle the legs of the women in my classes, but under the circumstances, it was difficult not to stare at this pair. Thick, green Celtic chains wound around the ankles and lower legs of this teaching candidate.
"Well, what do you think?"
I paused, dumbfounded. The only tattoos I had seen were on guys from my bowling league, guys who'd either been in theNavy or the Holocaust.
"Um, very nice," I said, but then it dawned on me. "What are you going to do when you have to go on a job interview or start student teaching? Don't you think they might count against you?"
Her smile and whole face appeared to droop a la R. Crumb's "Stoned Again" poster from the '60s. She had never considered the eventualities. Some students and I tried to commiserate by shrugging and half-smiling.
At the beginning of the next class the tattooed student greeted us and announced, "I thought about what you said."
"I can wear sneakers with socks over my stockings."
"Uh, great. Now that that's cleared up "
She was the first of many students to enter my classes with various forms of ink and/or piercings, but the first complaint I got came a couple of years later. A cooperating school district insisted I remove a candidate from student teaching because of his body art. Teachers are role models, district officials reasoned.
I sought a compromise. The tattoos were on his arms, above his wrists. "What if he renounced his Second Amendment rights and wore long-sleeved shirts?" They said OK, but every hot day that semester, I thought about his decision to get inked.
A few years later, there was a student with lots of facial ink and multiple piercings -- earlobes, eyebrows, lips and nostrils. He was rejected by one school but welcomed by another. It got me thinking about community standards, the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples, customs, traditions and, last but certainly not least, freedom of expression. What rules, if any, should we have on piercings and tattoos?
Students have been assuring me ink isn't as popular these days, but sitting here waiting for my car to be repaired, you'd never know it based on the half dozen mechanics and more than half of their customers. In some venues, tattoos might be the rule.
I must admit I've never felt the desire to get inked, although if I had any money, I'd be tempted to invest in a tattoo removal outfit. Tattoos always struck me as something that might seem like a good idea when you're drunk at 3 a.m. Maybe you'd consider one to make you look a little tougher or crazier in prison, but it's probably the muscles beneath the ink that have more to do with protecting yourself and intimidating others.
Maybe some people get them outside the big house because the world, with all of its violence and brutality, surveillance and security measures, might seem to be getting more and more like a prison.
Both the drawback, and perhaps the appeal, of body art is its relative permanence. Queequeg had lots of tattoos, and he was a hero of sorts in "Moby-Dick." Two rabbis have assured me ink will not preclude your burial in a Jewish cemetery, but I still don't think I'll ever get a tattoo.
Dan Schwartz, an educator and a former librarian living in Amherst, doesn't think he will ever get a tattoo.