Monday, March 10

Onion Rings?

One day last week I brought a sixth grade school group to our last stop on their one hour tour of the museum, themed “Heroes, Gods, and Monsters.” The last stop I planned was a staple on the “HGM” tour—a very well-preserved statue of Heracles (that’s Hercules to all of you Latin speakers). Whether they’ve studied the story of Heracles yet in school or not, most kids are familiar with this hero and his story courtesy of the Disney movie. We had a very good discussion about Heracles wrestling and defeating the Nemean Lion, and I began to answer some final questions. As I was about to wrap things up, one little boy who I had seen start to raise his hand a few times finally raised it high. I called on him. “Why is he naked and where is his pee pee and what are those onion ring things?” The class teachers were standing at the back of the room and they immediately looked anywhere but my direction. Chickens. Just so you know, the part of the question that gave me pause was not the naked question—I get that one all the time. By this time I’ve had so many conversations with strangers about naked guys and missing penises, it doesn’t faze me one wit. What genuinely confused me was the onion rings. I had no idea what the heck he was talking about--maybe he was hungry. After all, it was almost lunchtime. I tried to figure out what he was asking, but he wouldn’t point out what he was talking about. Eventually a student next to me said, in barely a whisper, “Between his legs.” Oh. Realization dawned and I said, very matter-of-factly, “He’s naked to show that he is a hero, his pee pee got knocked off, and THAT is hair. Time for lunch!” The look on that poor sixth grader’s face when I said “hair” told me that puberty was going to come as a very nasty shock to him.
Geez, and I thought the naked question could get dicey sometimes. At least that is easily explained: Nudity (that’s how we describe it in art history—“naked” has, well, connotations) in Classical art means something. It means you’re probably looking at a hero, a god, or an athlete. It also was a way artists showed off the beauty of the male body, which was in their mind the most beautiful form the human body could take. Sorry, ladies—you are, in the words of an ancient Greek author, “deformed males.” Anyhow, pubic hair is another issue altogether, especially when you’re talking with a sixth grader who obviously has no idea of the pubescent horrors that await him.
Teachers accompanying school groups are always very worried that the students are going to ask about the nudity—God forbid kids should ask about what’s right in front of them. I’ve found if you answer the question matter-of-factly and don’t act shocked or scandalized, the kids don’t think much of it. Besides, I would never want to discourage a student from asking a question by making them feel as if they’ve done something wrong by asking about something they’re genuinely confused about. Just this Friday another gallery teacher got an email from a teacher about a student who had drawn a sketch of a nude on the project she had them work on in the museum. The email asked our gallery teacher if she had given the student permission to draw an anatomically correct male. Our teacher responded, saying the student was likely just drawing what he saw in the museum and yes, she had told the students to use the art they had seen as inspiration for their drawing project, although she did not specifically suggest they draw a nude. The response I think this narrow-minded educator deserved is much more to the point:
Dear Teacher,
Grow UP!

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