School Pictures

I read on the internet about a Florida elementary school where a second grader’s class photo was altered.  The child, whose visage was replaced by a smiley face, had arrived at school without a signed permission slip, so the photographer covered his image with a cartoon smiley.

While I agree that this might have been a tasteless solution, it did remind me that all kids look a little goofy in their school pictures- especially second graders.  No matter how carefully they are dressed, how meticulously they are groomed, their pictures are bound to look as if they just rolled out of bed.

In my second year of school, Michelle Peck snuck scissors to the girls’ bathroom and chopped her bangs off, right before it was time for Miss Makepeace’s class to go to the auditorium for pictures.  I’m sure her parents were thrilled to see their little daughter with quarter-inch bangs sticking out straight from her forehead.

I was equally thrilled to see my children’s school pictures.  When Abby, my firstborn, started school, I had visions of her kindergarten photo to be a perfect study in pink and white.  The morning that the pictures were to be taken, I carefully braided her hair, making sure her part was straight and her ribbons matched her outfit.  She would be adorable! When the pictures arrived some weeks later, I hardly recognized my little cupcake.  Her braids were messy and her ribbons were missing.  Still, she did have that “I’m-so-excited-to-be-living” look in her eyes, and so I bought the pictures.

When Gabe was in second grade, half of his teeth were missing.  This is not unusual; the tooth fairy spends the majority of her life visiting seven-year-olds.  Either the photographer hated kids, or he hated teeth, because he certainly did nothing to minimize the jack-o-lantern effect.  But when I looked at the photograph, I heard the peal of my son’s laughter, and so I bought the pictures. 

By the time Elizabeth entered elementary school, I was on to this school photography thing.  I was also wise to my “messy girl.”  No matter what I did, Elizabeth was always…well… messy.  Five minutes after I finished getting her ready for school, I would find her soaring down the hill on her bike, tresses flying from her braids, shoes untied, purple popsicle dripping down one arm.   I knew it was hopeless to dress her up for school pictures, so I sent her to school in her usual garb- jeans and tee-shirt.  She was chronically ill- her little face pinched and pale- and I briefly considered brushing a little makeup on her cheeks to give her some color.  I decided that a second grader didn’t need makeup and sent her to school just as she was.  Several weeks later I found her pictures stuffed in the bottom of her back pack. There was my little wild child- toothless, ashen, and disheveled, and looking…well…exactly like my Elizabeth.  Needless to say, I bought the pictures.

At one point I thought I might replace the school photographs with ones I took by myself.   One Easter Sunday the children were neatly dressed and combed for church. I ordered them sit on the couch while I shot photo after photo, trying to capture all three looking vaguely serene and well-behaved at the same time.  Each time I snapped, someone would act up.  Gabe would push Elizabeth.  Abby would shove Gabe.  Elizabeth would mug to the camera, and Gabe and Abby would fall off the couch, chortling with glee.  I begged.  I pleaded.  I threatened.  Finally, I gave up, resigned to the fact that every photograph in the house would look like my children were raised by wolves.  Guess the school photographer wasn’t so bad after all.

But here’s the funny thing.  Now that my children are grown, my favorite photographs are not of serene, well-behaved cherubs.  They aren’t the ones from a photography studio, with perfect lighting and perfect clothing. They aren’t the ones where the children sit demurely with Mona Lisa smiles.  My favorite pictures are my kids as they really were- wide-mouthed grins, rumpled clothes, messy hair.  Those photographs burst with an exuberance for life that only a child knows.  They are unabashed, uncensored, unbridled.  They are a silver moment in time, when the children I cherished were exactly who they were- no apology needed.

The school in Florida is arranging to have another photo shoot.  That’s a good thing, since that little boy will only be seven for one short year.  I hope his parents sign the permission slip this time, so he can be included.  But more than that, I hope his parents cherish his image with all the others of his class, no matter how toothless and messy they are.  There will never be another moment exactly like this one. There will never be another child like theirs.

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