What the scars on my arms taught me about listening

Sometimes, I wonder what my students see when they look at me and when they reach out for help.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Content warning: This piece contains references to self-harm.

My scars are old enough to buy me a beer, which is odd to think about. 

These days, I go months without thinking of them at all, but they’re there: A couple of fat pale white worms against a background of a slightly different shade of pale white skin. Skinny ones that come together into what appears to be a poorly drawn tic-tac-toe board. A couple you can only see if you’re looking for them, their texture just barely different from the skin around them. Most are on my upper left arm. Only two are below my elbow, but they’re small and could be mistaken for something else, like the scar my wife has on her wrist from the scalding edge of a cast-iron skillet.

Graham Oliver (Courtesy photo)

My scars have been there for more than half my life now. Almost all of the scars are where they are because only my right hand was brave enough to hold the razor. They’re high enough that short sleeves still hide them. I was self-destructive but still understood most days I wouldn’t want people to know. 

When I think about that time, all I remember is feeling angry, frustrated, and disappointed with myself, my life, and everything around me. It was overwhelming.

During that chapter of my life, I ​​was my own primary victim. Though, of course, there were other victims. People who, when they pop into my brain in those moments before falling asleep where you catalog every minute thing you’ve done wrong your entire life, jolt me awake with a trembling regret. I am sorry I am sorry I am sorry. Self-destruction is not a surgical strike, but that’s hard to see when you’re in the middle of it.

I don’t like the beach and I don’t wear sleeveless shirts, so it’s rare for others to see my scars. When they do — like at a doctor’s office or when giving blood — I’ve never had anyone make a comment, and I’m not sure what I’d say if they did. 

Occasionally, I’ll see scars on someone else, like the woman who works at the rice roll shop down the street, and feel a small flash of solidarity. I find myself scanning forearm tattoos, looking for the telltale raised skin they often mask. Sometimes, I wonder if others see my scars and acknowledge to themselves that shared experience.

I was self-destructive but still understood most days I wouldn’t want people to know. 

For the past few years, I’ve been working with high school students. Many of them are the same age I was when I used that razor blade. Their self-destruction seems to come in different flavors than my classmates’ and mine did. One student picks at the skin on their hands until it is bleeding more often than not. Another pulls a hair from the back of their head, stops themselves, shakes it off, then a few seconds later, without realizing what they’re doing, reaches to yank another. Before a test, there’s the droning hubbub of conversation, but every now and then it’s punctuated by a student slapping the skin of their forearm, or neck, or thigh, wincing, reading a line from their notes, then doing it again.

A couple of times they have sought me out to talk about it, and here is my approximate thought process each time: 1) I am thankful that you trusted me. 2) I am a good person for you to talk to because I have experienced something very similar. 3) Despite this, I have no idea what to say to you. All I have to offer are my ears and a moment of quiet to shelter them from whatever storm is out there. I don’t even know whether sharing my own experience would be helpful or harmful, so I almost always err on the side of caution, not specifying how deep my empathy goes. 

And so my scars have failed me. Their wisdom in this situation is the same wisdom available to anyone. After all, a single conversation wouldn’t have saved me. But it helped when people genuinely wanted to listen, regardless of what either of us had to say. The scars form a map of where I was, but not how I got out.

And yet, isn’t the fact that they came to talk to me in the first place a sign of doing something right? And so I wonder:  Do they see my scars without actually seeing them? Or is it something else, some facet of my personality or manner, that when they need an ear they seek out mine? Or, doesn’t it have to be both? After all, how can I separate the experience of my past from the behavior of my present? Whatever it is, I hope I can live up to the trust they’ve placed in me, even as I know there’s no simple answer to what that looks like.  

Graham Oliver is a teacher, writer, and editor living in Taipei, Taiwan. His book reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in Guernica, Harvard Educational Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in fiction from Texas State University.