I’ve stumbled upon a relic from the past. Something I had assumed had disappeared or been completely reengineered since I left grade school decades ago. I was certain this thing had been reformed into a digitized, cropped, fabricated fraud of retouched blemishes, precisely placed eye sparkles, whitened teeth, and filtered nuance.
But school pictures still exist. They are alive and well.
The real kind – taken with a camera on a tripod that captures a face-in-time set before a garish blue background. No filters. No touch-ups.
We received a “picture day” letter from the daycare a few weeks ago. I was amused that there still was such a thing as “school pictures.” I put the date into my phone and when picture day rolled around, I attempted to tame my son’s stick-wisps. (This is honestly the best description. They’re straight and unyielding like sticks, but unruly and malleable like wisps of cotton candy – a real paradox.) I selected a shirt that had some shade of blue in it and off we went.
“Picture day” in my time was an event that involved laying out your outfit a week before, planning your hair, and executing it with copious amounts of White Rain because, damn it all, your class wasn’t scheduled for pictures until the afternoon. I remember starting off recesses barely breathing to avoid letting one hair out of place, only to forget minutes later when someone inevitably lured me into doing penny drops from the monkey bars. I remember standing in line in a dim room as an assistant passed out miniature plastic combs and warned us of lice if we shared them. There was anticipation for picture day.
I remember every one of my school pictures, but there are two that stand out to me.
2nd Grade: I smiled like someone had just shot sunshine laced with Smarties up my ass. I rocked a crispy-mullet-shag and was proud of my missing tooth. I remember being asked to smile by the photographer and just giving it all I had. Don’t worry. It didn’t hurt, despite how painful it looks.
4th Grade: My cousin Keri (who had a perm and was in high school, rendering her completely awesome in my book) did my hair that morning – half-up-half-down with a feathered and teased bang-poof. It. Was. Awesome. And it stayed put (thank you White Rain).
Fast forward 30 years. Today we got back my son’s school pictures. My first reaction involved giggling and gushing to myself as I flipped through them in the car because I saw my precious little boy and his goofy grin, and that always makes me giggle and gush. The subordinate reaction involved wondering why they didn’t comb his hair a little to the side like I had it when we arrived that morning. I peered more closely at his portrait shot…was that…snot? Yes. A little dab of snot visible beneath his nose in the 8×10. Drats. And really? Really no one could find the time to use their fingers to tousle his hair stylishly over toward the side? Oh well.
I met my husband for lunch and we guffawed some more together as we evaluated the pictures.
“I can’t tell who he looks like here,” I said. “I wish they’d have wiped his nose. You can see the snot.”
“Well…he has my giant head.”
“Yeah, and your eye color. Jeez, where’d he get those eyebrows? They go every which way! It’s like they go up, but down…and then they’re really bushy on the ends,” I mused before adding, “Man, we should start saving now for braces, I guess—Oh, l can see his little nose freckle in this one!”
I realize this all may sound incredibly awful in print, and you probably think we’re terrible people, but please know that all of our critiques were uttered with love and endearment, not judgment. And let’s face it – school pictures show no mercy. The images are crystal clear and true to color, right down to the eyebrow hairs haphazardly plastered above a row of thick lashes.
And I’m so grateful. Grateful, grateful.
You see, we get fancy schmancy professional photos taken sometimes. You know, “lifestyle” photos – the ones that show a resplendent, blurred background of golden wheat…the ones retouched in black and white…the ones that show clasped hands and kisses and candid glances. I love those too. They’re great. But when I look at lifestyle photo sessions I seldom see the objects of the portrait for who they are, as they exist in that moment, because the photo as a composition is often so beautiful.
Do you know what’s missing? I do.
Hair you’d wish you could go back and re-do.
Giant melon-heads inherited from Daddy.
Ski-slope noses inherited from Mommy.
Two rows of crooked little teeth.
Eyebrow hairs that look like they’ve been through a hurricane.
And these things, people, are the real things. The good bits. The imperfections that make our little humans as human as the day they came out of the womb – the day that we remember them the most, the hardest, and with the fiercest love. The day our hearts were so full we thought they’d split open.
I wonder today if that’s how my parents saw my school pictures – even the ones I felt were hideously flawed. Of course lifestyle photography back in those days was reserved for the cast of Dynasty or the tribes in National Geographic. They didn’t have Instagram, and filters were something you put in the coffee maker.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll continue to do the fancy schmancy pictures. I’ll continue to use Instagram. But I hope that school pictures never change. I hope that combs are forever distributed along with lice warnings. I hope that pictures are always passed out in packets with cellophane windows (even though it’s bad for the environment). I hope they continue to show the stick-wisps and the dabs of snot every now and then – that they stay simple, and pure, and flawed…and perfect.