In our monthly column, Personal Ink, we explore the tattoos that writers and artists put on their bodies. There’s always a story behind their ink, whether happy, sad or filled with disapproving parents. This month, we’re featuring Doug Robertson.

The Weird Teacher

Weird Teacher Doug Robertson and friends.

Robertson is the editor of CUE, and a 10th-year teacher. He’s written two books on education, He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). He’s also well known as the “Weird Teacher” on Twitter, where he moderates #WeirdEd every Wednesday at 7 pm PST. In his own words, here’s the story of his tattoo:

51+jWzOBK2L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Being a lifeguard was the most important thing I did as a teenager.

I grew up in Palmdale, California, and loved the water. I could swim before I could walk and before long I was on a swim team discovering that my feet should have been flippers. My love of the water meant that when I started looking for summer work there was only one real option—lifeguard. I had been a Junior Lifeguard during the previous summer, basically a volunteer in a blue swimsuit who did a little bit of the training and gopher-ed for the real guards. The older ones—who were 16!

I applied and got a job as a Bag (formally known as Pool Aid, but no one used that term unless the boss was around) that first summer and fell in love with everything about it. I was in the sun, I was teaching swim lessons, and I was being paid to hang out with the most fun people I’d ever met. Life was good.

Most importantly, I’d been assigned to Courson Pool. There were two pools in Palmdale—Courson and McAdam. Both were staffed and led by strong guards, but each had its own personality as well. Our competition was friendly, but the Courson pool was in the tougher part of town, so our swimmers were tougher, our pool was tougher and we were tougher. We trained just a little harder and a culture of excellence permeated everything we did.

In our break room we displayed a flag—the Jolly Roger. A skull and crossbones with the words “Commitment to Excellence” arching over the top. As far as I was concerned, “Commitment to Excellence” said everything that needed to be said. That was how I was going to live my life. A commitment to excellence didn’t mean that you were excellent, but rather that you constantly strived towards that goal. Being a Courson guard meant being committed to excellence.

Doug Robertson cropped

Doug Robertson’s tattoo.

Jump to my third or fourth summer. My sister, Summer, had convinced our Mom to let her get a tattoo for her 17th birthday. My best friends from high school already had some ink, so we took her to their parlor, a place called Gipsy’s that looked exactly like what you imagine a tattoo parlor in not the best part of town would look like. Our artist was named John, faded ink (some possibly jail?) covering every exposed inch of skin, with a drooping handlebar mustache. John gave Summer a star with a rose inside on her back, symbolic of Paul Stanley of KISS. She’s what you might call a fan.

Then it was my turn. Did I know I was going to get a tattoo when we scheduled Summer’s? Not out loud. Did Mom know? No. But we were there, I had the money and John had the empty chair and the machine. And there was only one thing I could think to have on my body forever. The Jolly Roger. An hour later my Commitment to Excellence was under my skin forever.

It’s a trick of a tattoo because yes, a skull and crossbones is a total tough guy-tat cliche. It looks like something I chose because I wanted to look cool. But that’s one of the reasons I like it. It’s my first tattoo and it doesn’t look like it could mean anything special until you ask. And then you find out it says everything about how I try to approach my life.