A few years ago, I read the following story by Robert Fulghum.
One rainy Sunday afternoon I found myself in charge of 70 or so school age children. We were in a gymnasium, and I knew that if I didn’t come up with an idea before long – pure chaos would ensue. At that very moment I remembered a game – an old roll playing game called Wizards, Giants and Goblins. So I got my charges to calm down (no easy feat, thank you very much), and I explained the rules of the game:
“Now,” I proclaimed, “if you wish to be a Giant, stand at the front of the room. If you wish to be a Wizard, stand in the middle. And those who wish to be Goblins stand toward the back. All right, let the play begin.” I allowed the children several minutes to confer in huddled masses until the action resumed.
As I was standing there I felt I tug on my coat. When I looked down, there was a little girl with blue, questioning eyes.
” ‘Scuse me.”
“Yes, what is it?”
“Scuse me, but where do the mermaids stand?”
“Mermaids? Mermaids?” I sputtered. “There are no mermaids.”
“Oh, yes there are. For you see, I’m a mermaid, and I wish to know where to stand.”
Now here was a little girl who knew exactly what she was – a mermaid, pure and simple and she wanted to know where to stand. And, she wouldn’t be satisfied standing on the sidelines watching the others play. She had her place, and she wanted to know where to stand.
But, where do the mermaids stand? – all those children we try to mold and form to fit into our boxes.
Sometimes, I have moments of inspiration. I looked down at that child, and I held her hand -“Why the mermaid shall stand next to The King of the Sea.” (Yeah, King of the Fools would be more likely.)
So, we stood together – the mermaid and the King of the Sea – as the Wizards, Giants and Goblins roiled by in grand procession. It isn’t true, by the way, what they say about mermaids not existing. I know they do for I’ve held one’s hand.
Now, this is a delightful story. It’s about childhood individuality, something that I believe in strongly. It’s also about a young female who insists that she be given her proper place in the world, something else that I’m all for. But every time I read this story, I can’t help but wish she wanted to be something other than a mermaid. I’ve only recently figured out why this is so and I feel the need to ‘fess up, and get it out of my system. So here goes.
Mermaids freak me out.
I realize this may alienate some fans of “The Little Mermaid”, but I actually feel much better. What is the deal with mermaids? Are they people? Are they fish? And mermen—seriously? Ethel Merman was a great entertainer but I honestly don’t see why her name must be bastardized for the sake of finding a male counterpart to Ariel’s species. The word “mermaid” isn’t even that bad, but the concept of being half-human, half-fish just disturbs me. No wonder Ariel wanted legs—she was tired of her lifelong species confusion.
I honestly don’t know why I have such an aversion to the idea of mermaids. Maybe it’s because I don’t really like fish (other than the characters of “Finding Nemo”) and I don’t really like swimming (unless I’m in the ocean). Maybe it’s because I never understood the movie “Splash”. Honestly, Tom Hanks? After Daryl Hannah goes to all that trouble to learn how to walk and talk and everything, you’re going to learn how to become a fish person so you can be together? The woman spent an entire day in front of the television just so she could figure out how to form coherent sentences, and you want to waste that talent by going to live under the sea with Sebastian? I don’t buy it. I can suspend disbelief to believe in witches and wizards, fairies and unicorns, Ents and dwarves and hobbits, but I do not get the mermaid thing. It just freaks me out. Centaurs and satyrs and fauns too—please, pick a species. Except you, Mr. Tumnus. You keep wearing your scarf and hanging out around lampposts.
My first memory is making an eyelash wish that I could be Tinkerbell. When I was four, my mother asked me who I loved the most, fairies or Jesus, and I innocently answered fairies. I was more upset when I found out about the Tooth Fairy than when I found out about Santa. I’ve always loved Peter Pan and the idea of Neverland. J.M. Barrie even includes a mermaid’s lagoon in his book, about which Wendy is very excited, but I always wanted to hear more about the fairy kingdom. Magic dust that helps you to fly with an infusion of happy thoughts, living in a tree top, knowing that you never have to grow up—it always seemed so pleasant to me. And so sparkly. Fairy dust is basically just magical glitter, and I love all things shiny.
So, if I had been one of the children with Robert Fulghum, I suppose I would have insisted that fairies also be given a place in the game. Someone else might have insisted upon pirates. Or ninjas. Or squirrels. And ultimately, that’s the thing about Fulghum’s story. As children, we are usually pretty confident of our identities. It’s only when people try to tell us who we should grow up to be that we start to wonder who we really are. And that’s a shame, really. Life is much more fun when populated by wizards and giants and goblins and fairies and gnomes and yes, even mermaids. I know that I will always feel a little more akin to Tinkerbell than Ariel, but it takes all kinds to make a world. And every world needs a little magic.
“Magic is believing in yourself. If you can do that, you can make anything happen.” –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe