The calendar reminds me it’s time for school pictures this week. I take a deep breath because our family has a bit of a history here. With technology’s advances, photos are as ubiquitous as sunlight or, say, leggings on a college girl. Selfie actually became a real word a couple of years ago in the Oxford English Dictionary. But it wasn’t always so.
When I was in grade school, unless a parent or teacher had a camera in hand, with actual film in it that required developing and processing, we didn’t get many pictures of ourselves, and certainly not ones we could see immediately. School picture day was a big event. We dressed nicely, combed our hair, and tried to smile sweetly.
It would take weeks before our pictures came back, and when they did, it was as exciting as receiving a yearbook in high school. Everyone compared head shots. We carefully snipped the sheets of the 3×2 wallets and exchanged them with each other like baseball trading cards, writing a small note on the back of each one: “To a Good Friend, Stay fun!”
Some of my childhood friends moved to different cities and the last memory I have of them is their wallet-sized school picture, frozen in 4th grade forever. Inevitably, every school year couldn’t be as cute as that one with the toothless grin in first grade. In fourth grade, I conveniently broke out with a case of cold sores–all over my face. Also, that was the day I wore the flattering bright yellow sundress my mother made me. All my friends who moved away that year have that lovely image to remind them, forever, of me.
Then there was 7th grade, everyone’s most graceful and poised year of life. Until then, I had fine, straight hair that hung limply around my face. After months of begging my mom for a perm, I got one alright. My rounded Afro frizzed around my head like an electricity experiment gone wrong. Oh, and that was the year I got braces. Mercifully, I thought to remove the humiliating headgear I had to wear with them before the picture was snapped. Headgear apparently was a leftover of torture from the Middle Ages: a metal bar that wrapped around your face, attached to your back teeth, and harnessed around the back of your neck by a velcro strap. And, again with the mustard yellow color. It wasn’t until the late 80’s that the Color Me Beautiful concept came around and I learned that yellow was not, and never would be, my color. It made me look as if I were just getting over a nasty stomach bug. Seventh grade was not my finest moment.
My husband had a classic school picture, too. His was captured in 3rd grade, when he apparently was having a bit of a bad hair day. There’s a note in his childhood scrapbook, written by his mom, that reads, “didn’t think to tell mom we were having pictures made.” That might explain the Lassie shirt and his seemingly stunned expression.
With our sad history of school pictures, I was determined to shepherd my children through the pitfalls of forever having such images represent themselves. When my daughter turned 11, she deemed the day her long-awaited “Golden Birthday.” No idea where she came up with this, but apparently turning 11 on the 11th is somehow your life’s one magical date. (I guess I missed the significance when I turned 14 on the 14th; no magic for me.) Turns out, her magic day fell on picture day. Imagine my surprise when the pictures finally came back and I realized she’d chosen to immortalize the moment forever by way of a tiara. Future students leafing through the old school yearbooks will not be aware of her reasons and will just imagine she was 6th grade royalty. Perhaps this was her plan all along. Why didn’t I think of that in 7th grade? Then again, the tiara would have been swallowed by my giant hair.
Sadly, my son’s Golden Birthday will not come until he turns 26, long after the school picture opportunity has passed. He has never taken picture day seriously. It has always been a barrage of reminders to please comb your hair and try a decent smile. In fifth grade, it wasn’t just his own self portrait that he decided to flub. He managed to wait for just the right moment in the class picture to be a goof. Yep, that’s him in the blue shirt looking like Bill the Cat from the Bloom County cartoon. The other parents, when they received this little gem, may have been startled by what appeared to be the child choking in the back row.
I was thinking the other day that, now that homeschooling is on the rise, many students will be able to escape the ignominy of school pictures. And with all the digital technology available, at the very least, they could photo-shop out the weird kid in the back row of a group shot.
Despite the embarrassment at the time, I kind of like having the old school pictures available. I can show my kids that I wasn’t always the specimen of beauty and coolness that they envy today. Everyone is weird. Everyone has been humbled, hated the way they looked, did something dumb, had a period of awkwardness. It’s a universal path that all of us must walk. The edited, filtered, photo-shopped selfies of today are just an illusion. I love Colbie Callait’s song “Try” because she says it’s okay to be real, genuine, messy, and likable anyway.
That’s why, towards the end of my kids’ school years, my favorite pictures have turned out to be the ones where their silliness and fun outweigh their outfits or hair or smiles. It’s why, when I pulled out my 7th grade picture and warned my son to shield his eyes and not look at it directly, we both shared a laugh at just how awful it was. We’re just keepin’ it real, people.