Definition of a Shark


Supervising the preschool art table was occasionally part of my teaching assignments one year. Sometimes I’d be asked to xerox things like an Easter egg or a spring-harbinger robin from a book for children to color. Sometimes we’d do a simple cut-and-paste project.

A couple of times I offered to draw whatever animal each child requested, for him or her to color. That was before I had all my Early Childhood Education units and learned that we’re supposed to help the children to feel empowered to draw their own animals. I filled requests for dinosaurs, unicorns, snakes, lions, and an occasional penguin, giraffe, elephant, tiger or gorilla.

I should say it was fun except that after a while many children became more interested in my drawings than in their own coloring. A little girl would spend maybe thirty seconds coloring in a unicorn that had taken me several minutes to draw, and then ask for another animal. What had started out as an exciting adventure for everyone, including me–I’d never before drawn some of these animals–left me feeling, after about half an hour, like a burger-flipper at a fast food restaurant during rush hour. In subsequent drawing sessions, I simply stopped when I began feeling overworked.

Most of the children were delighted with my rudimentary drawings. They seemed to consider me a veritable Da Vinci because I could draw a snake. Two twins, however, turned out to be tough customers. They each asked me to draw a shark. That seemed easy. I made my fish-shaped squiggle, made sure it had a big tail and enormous, pointed teeth, and, like a magician or even perhaps a rock star, passed the finished drawing to one of the two boys.


“DAT’S NOT A SHAAK!” the boys exclaimed together in their barely-understandable twins’ language that always reminded me of two old men sitting on rocking chairs on a porch somewhere in Brooklyn.

“It’s not?” I asked.

“NO!” they repeated adamantly, implying my total ineptness at fish-identification.

I looked at my drawing. To me, a shark was a big fish with huge teeth. What did these boys want? Was their dad an ichthyologist or something?

Ah! Finally I saw my error: I’d neglected to draw in the shark’s dorsal fin. That, of course, is the other part of its trademark besides its teeth. I added a huge fin on top of the fish and proudly passed the piece of paper back to the boys.


“DAT’S NOT A SHAAK!!” they exclaimed simultaneously again, looking at each other in mutual amusement that I could be so ignorant.

“It’s not?” I asked, genuinely baffled at what was now preventing my creation from passing the shark test. Short of going back to art school for three years of life-drawing, there didn’t seem to be anything more I could do.

Fortunately, a light will occasionally go on in my mind, feeding me the perfect “out” for a situation. It happened right then.

I said, “No, boys, that’s not a shark.” I paused for emphasis before adding, “That’s a barracuda!”

I said it as though a barracuda is a far more exotic, desirable fish. Both boys’ eyes lit up.

“A bayacooda!” said the open-mouthed twin I was pushing the drawing toward.

“I want a bayacooda, too!” effused the other twin.

Soon both boys were happily coloring in their fish. They wanted a whole tankful of barracudas, apparently, each requesting another one after coloring the first, and then another one after that.

When the more extroverted of the boys finished coloring his third barracuda, his eyes lit up again,as though he knew he’d finally met the person who could bring forth in a drawing the exact representation of his private, inner vision.

“Now draw A Bad Guy Who Is Nice!” he enthusiastically requested.

I hesitated, my knees weak and my breath suspended by the boy’s poetry! A Bad Guy Who Is Nice! Ah, if only we all spoke ten percent as interestingly.

I looked at the poet and silently wondered: “Do you mean that you like wild, dangerous things, like the barracuda-shark you just colored–but that in the human realm, real evil is too threatening to actually represent, so you want him appearing in a way that won’t scare you too much? Do you mean people think he’s a bad guy, but he really has a heart of gold?”

I could have gone on all day, meditating on the music and the beauty and possible interpretations of the little fellow’s words. But I was drawn from my reverie by the demands of many small children. The clean-up bell rang right after that, and I never did draw the bad guy who is nice.

Nor am I sure I could. I still go into a heaven of appreciative awe at the poetry of that young imagination, though–into a veritable mobius strip of enjoyment, just rolling the words back and forth in my mind, every time I think of them.


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