Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Geometry of Sunburns

My geometry teacher died when I was a junior. He wasn't my teacher anymore, but it was very sad. It was one of the first deaths in my life that made me think "wow, if it could happen to _____, it could happen to anyone." Short of seeing the Challenger explosion in elementary school, it didn't much occur to me that a teacher could die. The Challenger was scary, but it was remote, surreal and movie-like, something I was young and happy enough to be shielded from. But suddenly there this was, real as b2. I hadn't seen this teacher since I was an eighth grader taking his high school class. I'm sure he wouldn't have known me three years later, but the whole school--life--came to a halt with his passing.

It is true for me as I am sure is true for students everywhere: once you have a teacher, you have them forever as a memory and a part of high school's imprint. I hate to say you own a piece of them in your mind forever. (It bothers me to dwell on that thought, given my profession. But in a way, yes... at least the idea of them.) You have them for life in what you remember about your own growth. I am sure we mourned the loss of invincibility--that teenage clutch on that won't happen to anyone I know--as much as we mourned him. I hadn't lost a teacher to date. Real life was nipping my heels.

I believe the funeral was on my birthday. If it wasn't my birthday, it was close enough that it still felt like my own bad form. In high school nearly everything I did embarrassed me like a shrunken shirt that lifts when you raise your arms. Even the accident of my birth date. I smoothed and tugged at the edges of myself constantly; I found myself unsure what to say the entire day of the service. The memorial was on the baseball field since the teacher had been the head baseball coach. It was a lengthy service, but hundreds of students sat in uncharacteristic silence to pay respects to both a man and an idea we couldn't quite understand.

Someone had handed me a tube of thick sunscreen as we headed out to the field and I methodically slathered it all over my arms, my face, the back of my neck. I missed my chest, though, and the hours-long memorial faced into the late-spring sun. By the time I got home the negative space around my dress was burned into my sternum: a scoop-neck batik that would blister and peel before it left a dark, rough patch of skin.

Every summer I burn once before the infinitesimal Native American genes reassert themselves and things deepen to a warm brown. That particular sunburn took three years to go away. Long after the redness and blisters faded, a darker ring adorned my chest where the dress hadn't been. It was a collarless, permanent taupe dicky--hardly the accessory to wear with one's gingham-check bikini when trying to look, you know, not weird.

I don't mean to mix funerals and bikinis in a distasteful formula for a blog post, but each year the first sunburn takes me back to that sunny field. It reminds me that our efforts at covering ourselves up are not always successful--pain gets through sometimes, and light. It reminds me of how much the marks linger even if we want them gone.

Yesterday I decided to throw caution to the wind and gamble on Google Earth not capturing the activities in my backyard. The heat of a Mumford-scored weed-pulling exercise was to be too much and I pulled off my T shirt. The sports bra I wore was modest enough, and cooler. The sun on my back was too good to miss. Anyway, the next-door (pastor) neighbor with the two-story house was out of town. No need for solitary modesty. I sunk my knees into the dirt, got a good sweat as I clawed at weeds in the vegetable garden for an hour, then showered in time to get the monkeys from school.

It wasn't until last night I found that I branded myself again with another unusual screen print. The sun felt so good on my skin that thoughts of sunscreen never occurred.


It's not so bad, but it takes me back. So much of what I am was burned into me by sixteen.


  1. I totally know what your talking about. We took the dogs to the dog park yesterday. Didn't even think about putting on sunscreen. It was so nice outside. :) Nice tank top burn going on. Going to my friends pool Friday and see if I can even it out. LOL

  2. I still have one that looks very similar.. got it when I did yard work a couple of months ago when the sun peeked out and we thought it would stay :) Nope.. sun gone, etched in suntan line, still there.

  3. I usually get one when I go to a beach destination. It is right near the strap of my bikini and stays for years! I try not to burn sunscreen is my friend. Yesterday I only wore it on my face and thankfully the rest of me didn't get burned!