School pictures

Some things aren’t meant to be captured for posterity, like the lost city of Atlantis or that time Dad asked if you knew why your body was “changing.” Picture Day at school is like that, and we should do everything in our power to end it. It’s not that your child isn’t cute, of course — it’s that so many others aren’t.

Every September kids bring home order forms and demand money so parents can get pictures of a child they see every day. Clothes are laid out the night before as children roll their eyes. “You are NOT going to school dressed like that, young man. These pictures are for Aunt Jeanne!” Yet what are these photos really documenting?

Take me, for instance. I was a fascinating subject as a child. If you were to point the camera at me outside of school as I threw the football or sniffed a flower, you would see poetry. I was all lines and shadows and shafts of light at just the right angle. I was the stuff of Annie Leibovitz’s dreams. Picture Day, however, captured my essence with all the subtlety of a cement Christmas tree decoration. (That’s right — I’m blaming the photographer. You have a problem with that?)

There is a cruelty to adolescence that doesn’t need 8×10 color glossies. Blackheads dot our chins like pubescent five o’clock shadows, then become pockmarks or giant zits that migrate to our eyebrows the morning the pictures are taken. Spotted eyeglasses sit taped and crooked upon our noses, post-lunch barnacles cling to our braces and the tiny rubber bands that fill our mouths. The searing heat of the klieg lights frays our hair and soaks our armpits. Armed with only a tiny plastic comb and a cracked hand mirror, we are expected to hold back the tide of our painful youth long enough for the photographer to wring some humanity from us.

“Next! You look fine, honey. It won’t look so big on camera. Have a seat here … turn a little toward me. No, the other way. Arch your back, but leave your hands over here. Both hands. Arch your back. Turn your head. Chin up. Not your whole head. Smile! Try to twist, as if a little person is tugging at you from behind. And keep that back arched, okay? We want it to look natural.”

A quick look at the Picture Day order form reveals the Premiere Package, their “most popular” offering. You get an 8×10, two 5x7s, six large-wallet and four small-wallet pics along with four 2×3 refrigerator magnets. I don’t think we need that much photographic evidence of chemical weapons in Syria, much less of a smirking child. The “Family Double” package (hello, divorced dads!) gets you a whopping 22 wallet-size pictures of your child as he stealthily gives the finger on his lap. How many wallets do you really think your kid will make it into? I don’t even have a picture of my wife in my wallet, and I’m very, very fond of her!

Today they offer custom backgrounds such as the American flag (so your third grader can look like she just enlisted in the Marines). Are pictures “too 1990’s” for you? How about a calendar starring your precious offspring? Or a key fob? Or a fridge magnet? Or a pendant? Or an iPhone case? Or even dog tags — dog tags! (What a lovely way to give your daughter the gift of her first eating disorder.) They even have an 8×10 “Grandparent Print” for $12, which is somehow different than the regular 8×10 Color Print. I can only assume it comes with ribbon candy and smells like talcum.

Even those who don’t order the pictures will get pictures: There is no escape. Small copies are sent to every parent in case their child ever goes missing. This seems to say, “You don’t have to pay the $49 for the Gold Package with the twin sets and color glossies. Maybe this little photo booth keepsake will be enough to locate Johnny when the stranger in the white van offers him candy.”

You know what you can’t get? You can’t get that gawky image of your formative years out of your head once they immortalize it in a photo. Not that they haven’t thought of this: The order form reads, “Retouching will reduce the appearance of acne and soften facial lines.”

If you feel you need to “soften” your middle schooler’s facial lines, someone needs to take an unflattering picture of you — preferably, a mug shot.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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