William James tells us, "Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar." Of course, so does a two-by-four upside the head or a chisel stuck a half-inch into the hand. That's where I got my one tiny, little, wussy scar (the chisel, not the two-by-four). It's not too impressive. I've never been asked, "Hey, what'd you do there?" Nor have I had the opportunity to describe some vicious mishap in a nonchalant, jaded tone, making it clear that, though the pain would've killed anyone else, I barely flinched.
If anyone asks whether I have any scars (happens every day), I just say, "Uh... just a little one. You?" Most people - most adults anyway - feign indifference when it comes to scars. "Yeah, I've got a few scars," they say. "It's no big deal." Kids tend to be more forthright. They know that scars are badges of honor, and they wear them as such. Scars are to pain what hickeys are to romantic success for ninth graders: the serendipitously semipermanent battle scars of hard-won campaigns.
"They're all right," says one 15-year-old, Wayne, on the subject. "I like 'em." Each one of Wayne's scars has a story, which he tells with the practiced tone and the fine-honed pacing of a raconteur. "Oh God, where do you want me to start?" Wayne will say, if you ask about his cutaneous chronicle. There's the one on his right knee, where a bike rim fell on him. Or the ghost of a gash on his left calf, earned from going a little too high on the rope swing in (yes, inside) a friend's house. Or the one behind his left ear, from the time he chased a football into the street in Puerto Rico and was hit by a car. "The ear was hanging by a thread," he'll tell you. "By a thread."
Wayne's best scar, as he tells it, is the one on his shoulder, a half-inch-by-four-inch number that bubbles up when the weather gets hot. He got it in a knife fight. That's the one that draws attention: the awe-struck "Oh, did that hurt?" gasps of adulation from peers. Wayne says he's only ever seen one scar that was better, and that guy's doing time.
Wayne plays it pretty low-key, though. "Yeah, I went home with a knife in my shoulder," he says. "That was not cool." But it was cool. That's the point and he knows it, just as surely as he knows that it's cooler to pretend you don't think it's a big deal. It's all in how you tell it. You can't just go around saying, "Hey, wanna see my scar?" You have to wait for the opportunity to arise, and then you have to tell the story just right.
When Wayne tells the tale of a shorter scar in his lower back, he throws a pause... just a moment... between "I got one scar, I got stabbed with a knife," and "My sister was running with a steak knife, and she tripped." Let 'em be impressed for that half-second. "Good three inches it was in there," he says. Others go in for a more facetious tone than Wayne's; they work to impress, but they go for the laugh, too, just in case the awe doesn't take. "I've got scars all over my head," says Tom, one of Wayne's friends. "Uh... my brothers dropped a chess set on my head." A chess set? the audience asks, incredulous. "Uh... yep," he says. No explanation forthcoming.
Scar stories are the narrative eclat of many a ninth grader. Adults tend to be more reticent about scars, more philosophical. In his twenties, Peter has a wound litany as voluminous as Wayne's, and I think, truth be told, he revels in such revelations as much as Wayne does. His tone has more an undercurrent of irony to it, though: yeah, he's telling you scar stories, but he doesn't really expect you to be impressed. That's the tone even when he tells you about the cannon that blew up in his hands. Impaled in the chest by a four-inch hunk of wood, and the most he'll say is, "It might fade over time. The doctors don't know." The glaring red mark on his neck, from the same incident? It impresses his high-school students. "They think it's a hickey," he says. "They say, 'Ooh, what were you and Mrs. L up to last night?' " Most adults don't even inquire, though. "I guess they feel it's a personal thing," he says, "so they won't ask about it. But they'll look at it."
He says he doesn't feel particularly self-conscious about his neck scar, which is highly visible, even when he suspects that someone thinks its a suicide-attempt wound. But where does Wayne's take on scarring stand with Peter? Is it cool to have scars? Well... "In a weird kind of way, it's like a battle wound," Peter says. "The whole thing is kind of neat, in that I could walk away from it."
Peter's scar stories provide a more provocative insight into other people's reactions to scars than Wayne's do. "The one on my hand really freaks out palm readers," Peter says. "They say, 'Gee, you have a long life line,' and I say, 'Yeh, that's 'cause I put it there." He says his chest scar earns him some respect from fencing opponents, who often think he took a blade. "I think scars change a person's opinion of another person," he says. "They immediately get a view that, 'This person's been around a little bit, so let's listen to him.'" I don't recommend them." What of the deeper scars, though, the ones other people can't see? Leave them to the pop singers and pop psychologists. Give me the visible kind. They're cool.