When I was in high school, my nickname was Button Boy. Because I wore music buttons on my shirts and jackets like the punks I looked up to, who were as ugly as I was and made a living off of it, being cool that way, not caring they were ugly, maybe glad of it. God, I wanted to be in a band like the Cramps or the Ramones, like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, like any of those guys, so I begged my parents one Christmas to buy me a guitar, please an electric guitar, or a drum set, oh boy, but what I got instead was a trumpet. You guessed it. I ended up in the school band and was never very good, even though I practiced every day, thinking I’d be the Miles Davis of punk, and I dressed like it, too, as if that would help. Change the attitude, and that would change everything, right? So I cut the sleeves off all my shirts and wore leather pants and jackets and tied my mom’s scarves around my arms and legs, like I’d seen Adam Ant and Billy Idol do, and ordered pink Converse high-tops with neon-green laces from a catalog, and, of course, nobody in nearby Mobile sold good buttons either—only Mariah Carey or Garth Brooks or Aerosmith comeback shit—so all the buttons I needed I had to order. And the studded leather wristbands and belts. I didn’t only wear buttons. But I wore plenty of buttons. To show everyone I didn’t care what I looked like. That maybe I was glad. That I liked what I stood for, me and my trumpet. And fuck you.
I’m not exactly the rebel I hoped I’d become. I’m a high-school English teacher. And not a high-school English teacher in some gritty inner-city who has to butt chests with gang bangers to get any respect. I teach at a K-12 prep school, Bouchard Academy. I’m going on my third year now, and there’s never been one fight, or even one threat to anyone that I’m aware of. Metal detectors would just be a waste of electricity. You’re right, nobody will ever make a movie about me. Now, I’m all button down.
But on days like today, I’m proud of my job, teaching world literature to ninth- and tenth-graders. When I first began covering Hindu Literature nearly a month ago, my students were so amazed that for centuries Brahmin priests had been relying solely on their memory to preserve all their sacred writings that I offered up an extra-credit challenge: memorize “The Yoga of Knowledge,” a five-page selection, about three thousand words long, from the Bhagavad-Gita. Only Jinsong Mayer, the little genius of Chinese and Swiss descent, came up to me after school during office hours, with a calendar that mapped out exactly how many lines he estimated he could commit to memory each night, and the exact day, his birthday, when he’d be able to recite the whole thing. And today is Jinsong’s birthday, October twenty-sixth, the day of his recitation.
I wonder, as I turn onto my parents’ drive and rumble through the pines, if my students expect my sister, Eliza, to look like me. When I told them yesterday she would be sitting in on my classes today, they looked at me as if I were giving them a warning. Don’t make fun of her. Treat her like you do me. Better than you do me. As if she, too, must have a bloody-red birthmark beginning at her hairline and widening down her forehead to her temples and gradually tapering along her cheeks to a final point at her throat. As if anyone else in the world could possibly have, as a permanent mask, the map of India.
This type of birthmark, or lesion of malformed capillaries, which worsens over time, darkening and thickening the skin, is called a port-wine stain, but growing up here in George County, Mississippi, a dry county, I was afraid to call it by its name for fear that all the fundamentalists would then view it as a sign of wickedness and shun me even more than I was. Supposedly, three out of every thousand infants are born with a port-wine stain, but I’ve never seen one but my own, at least in person, and not many in pictures, so as early as the third grade, I could draw Tina Turner by memory, with her twisting body and short sequined skirt, the long legs, the pumps, the high hair, the smile, and, of course, the blistery splash on the back of her right arm. How I longed to have her face or her right arm and would often draw myself with these traded parts. Tina Turner, my solitary port-wine stain role model.
When I see my sister emerging from the predawn shadows, I smile, thinking of how pretty she’ll be to the boys in my classes. And not simply because she’ll stand out in her regular clothes, like everyone does who’s not in uniform, but because she is beautiful and clear-skinned with blonde hair and bright green eyes. Because she is their age and is perfect.
So, that’s who I am. The highlights and lowlights. I’m at best merely related to success. Not the worst kind of sell-out there is, but it sucks to be one, you know? So, who are you, asshole? What have you fucking done?