When my youngest son was in the second or third grade, he gave me a ceramic sculpture he’d made at school, pointing out that it was actually two presents, because if you looked at it one way, it was a pterodactyl, and if you looked at it another way, it was a fish. At the time, I worked as a paralegal at the Nebraska State DMV. Our offices were located on the main floor of the State Office Building, where local artists or schools often hung artwork.
I was talking with two coworkers, Tom and Laurie, when someone walked by and said my son’s artwork was hanging in the hallway. We all trotted out to see it.
There were many drawings hanging on the wall in honor of Neuter and Spay Month. The artwork involved pictures of big-eyed kittens and puppies, with the exception of my child’s. His drawing depicted a man standing over an animal in a wayward downpour of red rain. The man held a cleaver in one hand, while the other arm was a combination of arm and machete. To my horror, I realized the red “rain” emanating from the animal on the table wasn’t rain at all, but blood spatter that elongated near the edge to form an elaborate roped border.
I think I said, “Oh, my!” I glanced at my coworkers. Tom had left, but Laurie said, “when my son drew pictures like that, we took him to see a psychologist.” Then she went back to her desk. I stayed to examine the drawings of his classmates. The picture next to his was especially cute, a row of dogs on a bench, their eyelashes extended with black crayon.
In my mind, I pictured my son: a slightly hyper child, cheerful and kind, thin and asthmatic. As the youngest, he was the beneficiary of hand-me-downs and bossiness. He seemed to take it all in stride, but did he? Was this picture some sign that all was not well with him?
I went over to Laurie’s desk and ask what the psychologist said about her son’s drawings. “It turned out to be nothing,” she said, going on to explain that the dead and dismembered figures he’d labeled with the names of family members were not because he held any animosity toward his family, those were simply names he could spell.
A happy ending, I thought, heartened by the outcome. Feeling relieved, I was on my way back to my desk when a woman from another division stopped me and asked, “That picture in the hallway? Does your son have violent tendencies?”
“No!” I snapped. “He doesn’t!” Later I would learn that her son was having some emotional issues, but at the time I couldn’t see past my own angst.
Back at my desk, I called my husband and described the picture. I asked him if he thought I should make a doctor’s appointment.
“No,” was his curt reply. After explaining the picture situation again, he still wasn’t concerned. “Go back and take a look at the other pictures,” he said. “I think you’re overreacting.”
On my break, I went back to the hallway to scrutinize the other pictures more carefully. There were several that were best described as unique: one appeared to be a boy who’d barricaded himself in a house while dogs and cats swarmed outside, another had a single dog sitting in the middle of the page, it’s crudely drawn eyes wide with either surprise or panic, but there were no other pictures with cleavers or blood. I went back to my desk, and worried about my child’s mental state for the rest of the day.
When I got home that evening, I found a moment to talk to him alone. “I saw your drawing today, the one for Neuter and Spay Month. It’s hanging in the hallway at work.”
He perked up at this. “What did you think? Did you like it?”
“Well, I noticed that all the other pictures had puppies and kittens.”
He solemnly shook his head. “There shouldn’t be puppies and kittens in the pictures. That’s not what Neuter and Spay Month is about.” He proceeded to explain to me that the world is filled with animals that no one wants, but there is an operation that will help. The operation is done by the vet, and some places even do it for free!
As I listened to him, I realized that not only did his picture make perfect sense, it was the only one that truly captured the meaning of Neuter and Spay Month.
He wiped his runny nose on his sleeve, finishing his explanation. “If everyone neutered or spayed their pet, there wouldn’t be so many animals at the Humane Society.” He went to get our dog, cradling her like a baby so he could show me a scar on her stomach. “She had the operation before we got her. She won’t ever have puppies.”
As the dog took off for less invasive territory, I felt disappointed in myself, thinking How in the heck could I have thought this child capable of violence? That thought was quickly followed by Who in the heck thought it was a good idea for eight-year-olds to draw pictures for Neuter and Spay Month?
Now he was back to his drawing, wanting my opinion. “What did you think of my picture? Did you like it?”
“I thought it was extremely well done,” I replied. “I especially liked the border.”
He hitched up his jeans, pleased with the answer.
After that, we went about our evening routine, me without thoughts of calling the Pediatrician or holding an intervention.
Over the next couple of days at work, a few people asked me about the picture. “It’s an accurate and representational drawing,” I replied. “To neuter or spay an animal is an operation.” They’d slowly nod in agreement, either because they saw that the picture correctly portrayed Neuter and Spay Month, or because they now considered me dangerously close to the edge.
Life moved on, the Neuter and Spay drawings came down and another exhibit went up. I watched for that picture to come home from school, but it never did. Maybe someone took a closer look at it, and decided it was an “oh, my.” Although I don’t have the picture, I do have a little ceramic reminder on my desk, reminding me to look at things from all perspectives.