I was writing my name in the sign-out book outside of my son Harry’s kindergarten classroom when his teacher approached and asked if we could talk privately for a minute.
“Sure, Heidi. What’s up?”
I loved Heidi, and Harry did, too. She was smart, upbeat and fun.
“We had a situation today that I wanted you to know about,” she said. “Let’s go over here.”
As Heidi rounded the corner to a quiet spot near the cubbyholes, I felt a mini-wave of panic. Had Harry scratched someone? Thrown sand? Used a swear word?
“The kids are allowed to tape up artwork on the wall at the end of the day,” Heidi said, unfolding a piece of paper I hadn’t noticed in her hand. “This afternoon Harry put this up, and I had to take it down.”
She handed me a simple line drawing of a mermaid — a mermaid with big boobs. And both of the large circles on her upper body had small, colored-in circles at the center of each, too. I bit my lip to keep from smiling. Clearly he’d drawn this quickly. His mermaids were usually done in full-color and always breastless.
“It’s a mermaid,” I said. “With boobs.”
“That’s the problem. Harry and Nik were giggling about it and then other kids were, too,” Heidi said. “I took it down before parents started arriving for pick up. Some of them might not approve.”
I wondered if the parents she was referring to would allow any naked Barbie’s in their homes, or if they shielded their children’s eyes from certain paintings at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
“Okay, Heidi. Thanks for letting me know.”
In the car I asked Harry about the drawing. He blushed a huge grin, but didn’t say a word. I suggested he draw long hair to cover his mermaids’ front top halves, or give them bikini tops like his Mermaid Barbie or Ariel from The Little Mermaid.
I told Harry’s dad the story when he got home and showed him the drawing. He laughed. “I think I’ve seen breasts like that on a Picasso print,” he said.
Then I remembered that Harry had asked me recently me about an abstract image that appears on the bow of a ship in a painting that hangs in our living room. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but had explained that sometimes there’d be a sculpture of a lady or a mermaid on a ship’s bow for good luck. He’d asked a lot of questions about it being a naked lady.
Later that night I thought more about our son’s fascination with mermaids. His first exposure to the aquatic creatures had occurred three years earlier in 1992, when, at the age of 2, Harry watched the video of Disney’s Peter Pan. I knew he was mesmerized by Wendy Darling’s visit to Mermaid Island. He wanted to be Wendy for Halloween that year.
A few months earlier, in the summer of 1992, Harry had told me, “Inside my head I’m a girl.” So I knew biological differences between boys and girls didn’t make that much sense to him. It was what was in his head that mattered.
Harry’s fascination with mermaids seemed logical to me. Below the waist there were no differences between mermaids and their counterpart mermen. And boobs or no boobs, like Harry, they both had nipples, and they both loved the water.
Parts are parts. Art is art. And gender identity is between our ears.