Saturday, August 16, 2008

Just an Empty Hole

Most of you out there know about my tongue piercing.

But most of you don't know why I got it.

I was sixteen when my father died. He died in April of my junior year of high school, and it was - as you can imagine - very hard to handle. In June, I turned seventeen, and started thinking of things to do to manage my grief. I drank a lot of alcohol, I even tried drugs. I wanted to do something drastic, something BIG, to act out in my anger and sadness and complete incomprehension of how to deal with everything happening to me. But I was generally a good kid, so I didn't want to do anything TOO drastic. I did some research and went to my mom.

I laid my plan out before my mom. A tongue piercing, I said. It's discreet, it doesn't have to be permanent (like a tattoo would be), it's safe. I found a reputable, licensed place to do it. They'll do it for 17-year-olds with parent permission. So I asked if she would let me do it. She said yes - I imagine she imagined all the other horrible ways I could have chosen to respond to my grief and decided my decision was actually a pretty good one.

About a month before senior year began, my mom and I went to the piercing place. She signed off on the permission papers and I got my tongue pierced. No, it didn't hurt. I had to relearn how to talk with this strange object in my mouth, and how to eat, too. For the first six weeks, I carried mouthwash with me everywhere, so that I could disinfect after eating and drinking. But after a few months, it was just a part of me. I often forgot about it completely.

Until recently.

My teaching job is at a private Christian school. I interviewed back in June and was offered the job the very next day after my interview. I went in for a meeting to go over my contract and sign. I went in later for meetings with other teachers, to get a tour of the campus, to begin prepping my classroom. I went in for new teacher training - a week's worth of seminars, workshops, and meetings. And after all that, it wasn't until a few days ago that the administration decided to hand down an ultimatum: Get rid of the tongue piercing, or find a new job.

In case you're wondering, no, there is no rule written anywhere that says staff members can't have piercings, tattoos, etc. Nothing in the contract I signed, nothing in the staff handbook - just nothing. There is, however, a rule that students can't have these things, and so I was told that I had to get rid of it. They didn't even tell me themselves - they sent the woman who had been most ardently arguing on my behalf. She was most apologetic, but she had no authority to sway the principal and vice-principal. I had to take it out or leave the school.

I knew I couldn't leave the school. For one thing, I believe very strongly that God called me to that school for a reason - leaving because of something I didn't like would have felt so wrong. And for another thing, I felt that I could serve my students better by staying and modeling obedience. Now, don't get me wrong - obedience only goes so far. There will always be a line for each and every person that cannot be crossed. There are things with which I disagree strongly enough that I would leave the school in protest - racism, emotional abuse, etc. But there are other things - like the removal of a tongue piercing - that I would obey under protest. I have made it clear that I don't agree with the rule, and I've also made it clear that if students ever ask me, I will tell them the story of why I got it, why it was important to me, and why I removed it under protest. But I will stay at the school.

So Thursday night, I removed it:

I can't describe to you the ache in my heart when I removed it. True, it's just a piece of metal, but it was so tied into my grieving for my father - whom I've already been missing so much - and it felt, in a small way, like losing him again. Nine years I had that piece of metal, and now I'm left with an empty hole.

I put the bar into a necklace and I now wear it around my neck:

Still, though, it's not the same. Still, my heart aches at the loss.

Still, I feel empty.


Maggie said...

I am completely torn.

On the one hand, I absolutely see why the school said you needed to remove it. And I think that is their right - although mentioning it at some point earlier on would have been better.

But on the other hand, you got your tongue pierced for a very personal and special reason, and it makes even my heart ache to see you have to remove it.

But I think that you came up with a wonderful solution. Kudos to you for figuring out a way to both abide by the rules and be true to yourself. And maybe it was supposed to work this way...a student might not notice it in your mouth, but maybe the one who needs to see it just might notice it hanging around your neck.

L D said...

Wow, I want to cry on your behalf.

On the one hand, I completely understand why the administration would want you to take it out--there are so many reasons, but the main one would be that if the students have to abide by something, the staff probably should too.

On the other hand, you didn't do it in an act of rebellion, you didn't do it as a way to stick it to The Man, and you didn't do it because you thought it was super cool--you did it as a way to deal with your grief. And losing something like that has to be SO hard.

I respect you for finding a medium, and I hope one of your students sees the bar around your neck and asks why you wear it there for everyone to see. If anything, you can be a positive role model for these kids who are probably struggling with some very similar issues, and maybe save a few of them from making mistakes due to pride or immaturity.

A new reader via Her Bad Mother :-)

Anonymous said...

I still think it's rotten that they didn't mention this until the last minute. I'm also not a big fan of the "children can't do it, so adults can't either" argument.

Then again, I wouldn't expect anything less from an administration that considers Jersey and me to be "sexual deviants".

Still Jill B said...

Hmm. I'm just barely torn. I think that if the school is going to enforce a student expectation on faculty they need to make it clear that is at least an option first and foremost, and it's kind of irresponsible to their students, parents, faculty, and themselves to wait until the last minute. Makes me kind of wary of the school so I'll be tuned in to see if this is a one-time event or an indicator of things to come. I fell for a Christian organization once.

But I didn't hear you mention that you are wearing it around your neck for attention or to stick it to the school. I kind of assumed you were wearing your grief in another way, for yourself, not to make students ask. Maybe I misunderstood?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you decided to stay in your job, though I understand the difficulty of making the decision to remove something that is so important to you.

I can say, as a school administrator, that I see both sides of the issue! I'm looking forward to following your experiences as a first year teacher. I started teaching high school 17 years ago at the age of 23, and it was one of the best things I've ever done.

BTW, I also found you via your guest post on Her Bad Mother.

Lara said...

jill b - no, the necklace is for me. however, if a student DOES ask, i'll use it as an opportunity to teach and minister to the kids. its intention is not to stick it to the school at all. if i were going to "stick it to the school," i would have said, "fine, i'm leaving it in, find a new english and french teacher in the five days before school starts." but that's just not me at all.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry you had to lose that part of you. I guess we all change (like it or not) and morph into new versions of ourselves as we grow. And piercing aside, my guess is that you are honoring your father in so so many ways. Still I am sad for you. Maybe its time for that tattoo now (one you could even hide)!

Bridge said...

I miss my tongue ring had to go when I wanted to enter the professional world after college. (And it certainly wouldn't work in my career now as a lawyer). But if I flex my tongue a certain way, I can still see the hole - a little souvenier from a time when it mattered a little less what I looked like and more what was inside.

crazymumma said...

We all need symbolic action in our lives. Both the decisions you made are loaded with meaning.

I like to think that your father would have admired w you decided on both courses of action.

crazymumma said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
flutter said...

think of it, now that symbol is closer to your heart.

Jessica R. said...

Oh that is heartbreaking. I can't believe they didn't let you argue your side of the story before handing down the ultimatum.

There are many things that grown-ups get to do that kids can't do. It's crazy to assume that teachers have to abide by the same rules as kids.

Good luck with the first day of school. We're all rooting for you!

Lisa said...

Oh Lara, I'm so sorry that the school didn't recognize that the piercing was for your own private reasons, and not some form of rebellion or something like that.... The necklace is beautiful, but I'm sure it's not the same thing.

Issa said...

That's so sad that they made you remove it. Will you put it in when not teaching?

Mojo said...

The argument that adults don't get to do it because kids don't is a load of crap. Adults get to do a lot of things that kids don't get to do. It's one of the perks of surviving childhood. It's just a shame that the school didn't have your mom's wisdom.

But don't mind me... I got authority issues.

Anonymous said...

Hummmmmmmm I don't even know what to say. My dad died 20 years ago the 22nd of this month. I went into a horrible depression, I was only 19. It took me 5 or 8 years to get over it...a piercing never occurred to me, however, I did marry outside my race and I honestly believe that I did it because my father is the only person that I knew would approve. We all have our reasons, eh. It is ok! And, I think you did the right thing and I wouldn't hesitate to tell the students wither.

Blog Antagonist said...

I think you handled that in an enormously mature and rational manner. And I think you did model something that is positive and admirable.

Good for you.

Anonymous said...

This is why I adore you Lara. You handled this with such grace and thought. Your dad would be proud. And those kids are lucky you didn't decide to leave.

Mike Young said...


I love your story of why you got the tongue piercing and I am sorry that you had to take it out. But you did the right thing and I particularly like your solution with the necklace.

And like someone above said it is now closer to your heart. That is a neat thought.


Kaza said...

I'm so sorry you're missing him so much. It sucks out loud that they made you make this decision. But it says a lot about you that you agreed to do so (under protest).

j.sterling said...

well now you can get a tattoo!!! or a tummy piercing! :) right? i'll go with you!

Z said...

Yours is the best reason I have ever heard for a tongue piercing (better than my sister's "I just wanted to"), and that makes it so much harder. Plenty of places require no visible piercing or tattoos - I took my eyebrow ring out before my interviews because I knew it wouldn't be allowed - but with no contract, no warning, and for a ring of such great meaning? I am sorry you had to do that... (But I do love the necklace idea)

Anissa Mayhew said...

I got a tattoo this spring. Me and 15 other cancer moms got tattoos of kites in honor of our kids, some in memory of their children. These tattoos represent the fact that cancer will always be a part of our lives, what an impact it has had on our lives and our bond of friendship through a traumatic time.

My kids go to a Christian school and I got some looks and stink eye when I showed up with it, proudly showing off my ankle and my kite.

People won't always get what it does to the heart when something that represents something so important in your life is dismissed by those who don't try to understand.

I respect you for doing what you need to in order to be a teacher to these kids, but I also rage at the idea that this very special piece of jewelry was taken from you.


William said...

Sadly, from the school's point of view, conducting a thorough psychological profiling on everyone to determine the nature of the piercing isn't really an option. The part where they dropped the ball was not telling you sooner.

There's something to be said about individuality being crushed when one has to be merged into a much larger institution. Part of me thinks that's just part of the price of the package, but I think it's healthy to maintain at least a little bit of outrage on the matter.

JCK said...

You are brave and wise. I hope the job is everything you want it to be ...aside from the mandated removal.

Mrs. Chili said...

I know nothing - zero, zilch, nada - about tongue piercings. Can you put the thing back in when the bell rings every afternoon? They can't tell you to LEAVE it out, right?

Natalie said...

Along with William's point, I'd add that the school doesn't have the option of explaining to everybody who sees a piercing why the owner has it, either. And realistically, you aren't going to get to explain to all of them, even though you do have a real bang-up explanation to give.

However, I also think it's lousy for the school not to have said anything before now, and also lousy for them not to have mentioned piercings in, say, the teacher manual or dress code or behavioral code or whatever it is they present faculty with. In fact, given that administration probably thinks the no-piercings un-policy represents some more general principle it wants to uphold (and wants you as a teacher to uphold), I think it's particularly lousy of them.

On the other hand I think the way you've decided to handle it is very mature. I'd suggest, also, that you aren't really obeying the administration. You're accommodating them, which I agree with you is the sensible thing to do in this case given the totality of the circumstances. There may be an element of obeying (in the Biblical sense) the administration because you've chosen to make them your boss, but I don't know how far I'd push that. But I would propose that you're obeying God by choosing to do whatever it takes to stay in the place and do the job you feel sure he's called you to, even if what it takes is a great sacrifice on your part.

And on the plus side, I think it will benefit your students more to hear why you wear your necklace than it would to hear why you had your tongue pierced in the first place. Lots of kids that age understand grief and personal principles; far fewer understand how to responsibly integrate personal principles with legitimate but mistaken authority or the conflicting personal principles of others, or how to obey God's will even when it costs you something you cherish.

Maggie, Dammit said...

When I read your writing I sit up straighter.

Meg said...

Wow. While on the one hand I totally understand some of the motivation behind the school's asking you to remove a relatively innocuous piece of metal from your mouth, I don't altogether agree with it.

To use the children as a reason for their request - "the kids aren't allowed one" - is, to me, a little bit cowardly. All through MY school career, all I ever saw or heard was the "do as I say, not as I do" mentality.

Having said that, they ARE the employer and I understand their right to ask you to remove it, though they should have said so in the initial stages of the whole process.

It hurt deep in my heart to think of you having to remove it and as I was reading I was thinking of ways for you to preserve some of that sentimentality. Then I saw the picture of the bar through the necklace and it made me happy to know that you had found a way to keep it close to you.

Perhaps now, the students will see that and ask why you have it there and you can tell THEM the story of your father and your unique way of dealing with your grief over his death. In this way, you can prove to be a good role model to well as by obeying and removing it in the first place.

I hope you told the school what the piercing meant to you and why you were unhappy at removing it.


Kris said...

I am so sorry! In my opinion they should have said something beforehand. It's not like you hid it from them (at least I'm assuming they knew from the start).

I like the way you put it in a necklace though, that is really nice. That way it's at least still with you.

Cate Subrosa said...

This was an excellent post.

I'm sure your father would be very proud of you and I hope in time you'll come to see this as another part of the healing process.