Darren López studied anthropology in college and then travelled the world listening to and collecting stories from elders of many cultures, including his own Puerto Rican and Colombian roots. His attention to oral histories and folktales helped him to develop his own storytelling, though film and other media, and now in storytelling with his elementary school students.
When I first read teacher and now author Darren López’s new picture book My Teacher Has Tattoos, published by Soaring Kite Books with wonderful illustrations by Bhagya Madanasinghe, I immediately thought back to my own nearly 30 years of teaching, back to those first amazing, exhausting, completely challenging years. And I could only imagine the pressure of having to hide an important aspect of my personal identity while also dealing with all the other pressures and challenges of being a first-year teacher—or a teacher at any point in their career. Teachers pour huge amounts of care and energy into their students, into the subjects they teach, and into the classroom communities they build together. Teachers are too often also deeply judged by students, parents, and colleagues alike. Thus for many teachers they have the added burden of maintaining a separate “teaching persona” where they are made to feel they have to hide elements of themselves—who they are, who they love, or in the case of Darren Lopez, the personal expressions of their cultural identity and history.
Publisher Spotlight: Thinking back 30 years to my own first years of teaching, I can only imagine the pressure of having to hide an important aspect of my personal identity while also dealing with all the other pressures and challenges of being a first year teacher (a situation that too many teachers face for a wide variety of reasons). How did this experience affect your early teaching years, and how has being able to show your tattoos at school affected or impacted your life?
Darren López: My first year teaching in Puerto Rico I definitely hid the tattoos with fear of revealing them because I was teaching at a private school and it was a different environment than public school.
When I started teaching in Washington, DC, in 2009, I hid them because of the stereotypes behind tattoos but also because I was a male in an elementary school that spoke loud and was (am) strict. So I didn’t need any other strikes against me.
To this day I still cover my tattoos not so much because of the stigma that was once held against tattooed people (I feel this has diminished as tattoos are more common nowadays) but more because it distracts my elementary school students. I can get off track pretty easily especially when it’s telling a story–and there are many, many stories behind all my tattoos.
In my personal life, I have gotten the elevator treatment where people will hold their belongings close to them as we share the elevator. During Covid, I was taking things out of my house through the front door without a shirt on and I had the cops called on me for being suspicious tattooed individual in the neighborhood.. I’m not sure which neighbor called the police on me but I had to show proof that I owned my house which was upsetting.
Publisher Spotlight: You wrote in your ending author’s note that you wrote this book to help end the stigma surrounding tattoos. When you revealed your tattoos to your students, how did it affect or impact your teaching in any way either formally through the curriculum, or informally as raised/occurred in your classes?
Darren López: My students get to see my tattoos on field day, the only day of the year I’ll wear short sleeves and I let them ask me all the questions they want at lunch. I try to explain each tattoo with the cultural significance but sometimes they are so overwhelmed with all the art they just want to know what it is first before explaining the why.
Publisher Spotlight: How did your students react when they read your book?
Darren López: They’ve enjoyed reading the book and loved the stereotyping message it has. They also giggle at the subtle jokes like being hard of hearing and grumpy without coffee because, well… it’s me! LOL! But they really enjoyed the illustrations of Borneo and felt represented in the classroom diversity.
Publisher Spotlight: Thinking of your experiences revealing your tattoos to colleagues and students, what was the best part of finally sharing your tattoos and the personal importance of each one? What was the most challenging part?
Darren López: With some colleagues I’ve gotten the “oh my god why do you have so many tattoos” and that’s an invitation to just smile and nod because I feel they have already came to a conclusion in their head. A few colleagues that have read the book have come back to me with an open mind and curiosity about my travels and culture which has been cool.
The students always have the best questions: did it hurt, why did you do it, how long did it take. The best response is when I can show them the cultural significance or region of the world it comes from because it opens up the opportunity to teach social studies (I teach 5th grade Math). The most challenging part is I have tattoos all over, and when the questions are about tattoos that they cannot see when I’m wearing short sleeves, I need to be descriptive of the tattoos on my chest, back, stomach etc.
Publisher Spotlight: Thanks, Darren, for your time today and for sharing your story behind the story–and behind your picture book about the stories tattoos tell.
Darren’s honest and moving descriptions of his experiences that led to writing this book are especially resonant as teachers now face added challenges and increased scrutiny. We send our thanks to Darren and to Soaring Kite Books for their generosity in sharing his story. My Teacher Has Tattoos by Darren López and illustrated by Bhagya Madanasinghe is also available in Spanish as Mi maestro tiene tatuajes.