Modest proposal of budding artist

8th December 2000 at 00:00
CONVERSATIONS at our dinner table are usually calm. Rarely are they desultory.

The calm emanates from my husband. A veteran of township schools in South Africa and later of inner-city schools in the UK, nothing kids say or do fazes him.

The absence of desultoriness is due to our 11-year-old daughter, Cookie. Take last night's opening gambit: "Dad, can I see your circumcision?" Dad chews, before asking: "What, now? I'm eating."

Mortifying memories flood back, of "a little chat" with Cookie's nursery school teacher. This was after she'd told the class of fellow three-year-olds that the difference between boys and girls was vaginas, vulvas, penises and testicles. Teacher said she was pleased that Cookie used the correct terms, but she'd like to reassure herself that Cookie'd learnt them appropriately.

"No, don't be daft. Later when you bath," Cookie says.

I think, oh, God, no! Next week I'll be up at school explaining our approach to body bits and functions - again. Then I shudder at my thoughts. Am I such a wimp in the face of all these reports that children are most likely to be abused by their (male) parents, so fearful that Cookie's beloved Dad will be seen as an abuser for holding his penis up for sketching? When did I become so defensive about our open-door policy on bathroom and toilet, our wandering around in anything, including nothing?

Dad says: "Some other time, OK?" "OK," Cookie says. "It's for my homework, but I suppose it can wait."

A discussion about the homework ensues. Cookie is still enthusiastic enough to plunge into it straight after school.Dad is not usually home in time to help, but tonight she's waited for him, because of the nature of the project.

It turns out that anything surprising, different, showing initiative, gets an A+. She loves A pluses, thus she seeks to always have something beyond just what has been assigned.

This homework involves drawing a male reproductive organ. She's done all the inside bits from books, but having a real live penis to draw would be best. Also, somewhere in the lesson mention was made, of circumcision - thus she thought it might be a nice idea to draw a circumcised one.

Dad smiles, pleased to be asked to help with homework. He doesn't have the slghtest qualms about posing in the nude, penis held in the best light for the young artist budding scientist.

Dad, a teacher to the marrow, takes the opportunity for an object lesson on the history and current debate around circumcision. I feel that we are on safer ground, discussing the penis and its woes in general. But Cookie suddenly turns to me. "Mum, you're not circumcised are you?" she asks. I sigh. We have had numerous conversations on the sufferings of our many circumcised women friends. This seems to have made less impact on her than the importance of getting that extra credit.

Then Dad grabs Cookie's attention. He mentions that Cookie's beloved boy cousins were cut as little babies of a few weeks old, that her uncles were boys her age when their most delicate bits were snipped. Her eyes brim. Her soft heart is touched at the thought of the millions of little children suffering. She expresses herself overjoyed that so many of our Somali and Sudanese friends have escaped to the UK with their girls' genitalia intact. Another horrific thought strikes her. What if she'd been born in Sudan or Somalia or even Egypt? She suddenly vehemently opposes circumcision.

Arrangements are made for the viewing of the pathetically mutilated penis immediately after supper. Cookie is beginning to talk about it as if it is a wounded kitten. The viewing and sketching is to take place tonight, after all, here in the living room, by the light of a reading lamp. I draw the curtains tightly. Cookie fetches her book and pencils.

As she sketches, my mind races ahead to the next day. I can already hear the head of Year PHSE teacher. She's been told something shocking by the biology teacher. Said teacher was about to hand over a merit to Cookie for her very realistic drawing of a circumcised penis, when Cookie revealed that her dad had posed for it.

At which stage I could blame the school for inculcating in Cookie this greed for merits. But darn it! Why the heck shouldn't I assert our right to an enlightened approach to raising Cookie, including closer study of a penis than just seeing Dad walk around the house nude.

Anyway, he's just being a good dad - helping with homework.

Shereen Pandit is a short story writer and poet

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