School Picture Day Captures the Awkwardness of Time

We, or I, picked out clothes last night. I sifted through stacks of T-shirts in my son’s dresser until I found something that didn’t have a picture of a Star Wars character on it. A Polo shirt would do nicely.

My daughter’s wardrobe proved easier: Dresses in many shades hung in a mad jumble in her closet. Brown with stripes would look good for fall.

School picture day is the one day a year I get to pick out clothes for my kids to wear. It’s an unwritten rule in this house. My day. So this morning my son put on his royal blue Diary of a Wimpy Kid T-shirt and threw on a white button-down over it. If he sits the right way, the words “Are You Ready to Rock?” show through his shirt, which will probably make him look washed out anyway. I didn’t feel like fighting it so early in the morning when everyone still had puffy eyes and bedhead. My daughter walked in wearing a charm necklace displaying giant baubles in a rainbow of colors and geometric shapes, sure to cast bright reflections in every direction. She adds her own touch to everything.

I will hate those pictures. I’ve just dished out $40 for pictures I will hate, at least for now. I buy school pictures every year and when they come home in my kids’ backpacks, I open them with fingers crossed, hoping this will be the year I love them. But no. My son’s hair has always been combed straight down over his forehead even though he wears it to the side. One year my daughter’s lips dried and curled up on her gums, disappeared entirely from the photo. My kids grimace, smirk, strain, or look like they can’t wait to get away from whomever stands on the other side of that camera. Just who do they send to take school pictures anyway?

It’s funny now to look back at the older pictures and say, “Oh yeah, that was the year you lost your front teeth,” or to my son, “That was the year you wanted long hair. Don’t try that again. It was a bush.” But 20 or 50 years from now, what will we think?

The thing is, when I look back at my own school pictures, they mark a passage of time, the same pose year after year. When you have them all together, nothing shows my transition from elementary school to middle school to high school better. Some pictures are cute, hideous, sad, but they are all me. They all mark my awkward progression through time. And as a mother, I really want that time line of my own kids for myself.

school pic

Muddled sixth-grade kid making her awkward way in 1986.

When the kids bring their school pictures home, I send them to family, put them in a scrapbook, and we wait. In ten years, those pictures with their tousled hair, missing teeth, giant baubles, and T-shirts will have documented more than I could have ever imagined. Maybe I’ll notice something I didn’t see before when I’m searching for something that I miss.

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38 Comments

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38 responses to “School Picture Day Captures the Awkwardness of Time

  1. I just realized we’re about the same age! I was in 6th grade in 1986 too! 😀

  2. I really appreciate that you tend to post during my planning period. So thoughtful of you. You’re spot on about school pictures. They provide a glimpse of raw transparency that we’d rather forget. I still shudder at my 7th grade Kodak moment. It was the year of braces, twist beads, and a bad perm. Just about the time I’ve managed to repress this memory, I run across the album during a frantic search for nonexistent construction paper. And yet, remembering may be one of the best things I can do as a teacher of teenagers.

    • You’re right, it just may be. My mom must have all of my old school pictures. That was the only one I could find. I have some hideous ones with braces and wires shooting out in all directions, hair in all sorts of waves and poofs. This one was just the beginning of it all. Wings. And they flopped before I even got my picture taken. Ha!

  3. There’s a particulary hideous one of me from when I was about 14 – I don’t know where it’s gone now, probably (hopefully!) in the bin. I remember thinking that there was no way I could run away from home (teenage angst) for at least aother year, otherwise that hideous photo would be plastered all over the news in a bid to find me…

    Love the post, as always! x

  4. For years my mom always put my bangs in that high 80s style. I love the awkward ones. All of them feature me in long hair, sometimes red, sometimes brown, mostly blond. Then my last year of Highschool (I would have been 18) I cut off all of my hair! I think that was one of the first genuine smiles since grade 2.

    I’m not sure if I will dress the kids or not for picture day. It might be interesting to see what they chose to show themselves off. Looking forward to the toothless ones!

    • My daughter will have her top two teeth missing this year. We’ll see if she decides to show that though.

      The best part leading up to picture day is the days of my kids saying, “Is this a good smile, Mom?” and showing me big cheeseball grins. I say, “Just smile your normal smile.” Is it that hard?

      • My sister has always had unique teeth. When she bit my brother and I (waaay back when) she couldn’t get out of it because the dental record would be undeniable evidence against her. Unfortunately, she got teased quite a bit, which resulted in this closed mouth smile so she could hide her teeth. It took years and years to convince her that her normal smile was the best one she had.

        I find it extremely difficult to put on a “normal” smile for pictures! Every year you would just hope for a humourous photographer.

      • I think part of it is the fact that your entire class is watching you. That and you don’t want to look like an idiot laughing at a grown man with puppets on his hands.

      • Victoria

        Entire class! Oooh that is awkward, we had only three class mates in the room at one time. Muuuch easier.

  5. I feel the same way. My 22-month-old just had “school” pictures taken at daycare and I know they’re not worth $20, but it just seems like a “must.” The report from his teacher on picture day said that he didn’t cry, but that he just stared blankly at the photographer. Sounds like it’s gonna be a great pic. 🙂

    • During each of my kids’ first year, I got monthly pictures of them. For my son, I drove him to a photographer an hour away. She had cute seasonal themes and cheap prices. For my daughter, I did the photos myself, modeling them after my son’s. Both are cute and such a funny way to look back at that first year. After that, I did just every six months or so. Getting kids to smile is hard but that “studio” photo is worth it. You definitely want the snapshots of your everyday life, but I think having all of those school picture-type shots lined up year after year really does give you a timeline. And a good laugh. 😉

      And I don’t think the $40 I paid was worth it either, but some of the money goes to the kids’ school. I think of it as a donation–with a prize.

  6. HAHAHA!! My two youngest sons just had their school pictures sent home. It’s tough when one of the two is naturally photogenic and the other is … ummmm …. far from that! Additionally, the *other* had banged his head into the carpet two days prior, leaving a carpet burn on his forehead – now forever memorialized in his picture!

    I think it REALLY funny how LifeTouch always offers a photo *retake* day. For no additional cost, you can subject both yourself and your children to the same joys of picture day AGAIN!! o_O

    • I’ve never taken advantage of picture retake day. I fear it will be worse than the first shot.

      There is a picture of my sister in kindergarten. My mom forgot it was school picture day. She has a scrape across her nose. Her hair was in pigtails. She had a plain white turtleneck on. I don’t think my sister even smiled. It is the funniest school picture she has. I’m surprised my mom bought it. But now, thirty-some years later, that picture shows the little school kid she was.

  7. lisa

    I just buy the school pictures to satisfy the grandparents and then at Easter I go to get pics taken that actually look good. Sweet sixth grade picture – I wouldn’t post mine if you paid me!

  8. Aw, I love that picture of you!

    My son actually dresses up on purpose for picture day. Last year he wore a clip-on tie. This year? Mario t-shirt and tousled hair. My daughter insisted on wearing her favorite purple headband last year, but she wore it around the top of her forehead and ended up looking like Richard Simmons. Money well spent!

    • Hilarious! Those need to be framed and kept on the end table so when the kids have boyfriends/girlfriends over, they will groan and complain and say, “Aw, Mom, can you put those hideous things away?” Now that’s money well spent.

  9. I recently spent $40.00 on school pictures too. My daughter selected the option for two special backgrounds instead one. I must confess I haven’t even filed the pictures from last year. They are still in the envelope. At least your kids’ photos are showcased in a scrapbook. You’ve just inspired me to start sorting! 🙂

    • Maybe scrapbook isn’t the right word. I slide them into a photo album. Every year gets its own page. It is nothing fancy at all but when you flip through, you see the sequence. It works.

  10. $40 it is – must be the going rate across the country! And yes, I hold my breath and cringe year after year! I do love your take on the timeline of life and hope I can see my girls pics with a loving eye this year. The same loving eye I want them to have when they look at these pics 30 years from now (not that I have that trick mastered!). Why is it I can look at your pic and see a sweet, lovable little girl yet look at mine from back then and think only “dork?”

  11. I always tried to tell myself when my kids came home with their terrible pictures that it captured a moment in time, a way they looked at that moment (braces, acne, scars…) that I would want to remember. Didn’t know if that was true or not. Took out a picture the other day of my now 20 year old son at age 11 and the answer was yes.

    • I think there’s something to be said for the awkwardness. It’s just real. I fight so hard to get good pictures of my kids. I delete the bad ones I take. But these crappy school pictures? I’m stuck with them and they really do show what my kids look like after a day at school: rolling around on the floor, running across the playground, and spilling lunch down their front. That well-groomed kid they started out as in the morning made it for the ten-minute drive to school. After that, it’s anyone’s guess as to what could happen. So school pictures, yeah, a day in the life. Glad to know a veteran thinks it’s a worthy cause. 😉

  12. I hate those pictures. It’s a painful ritual.

  13. Oh, the memories school pictures bring back! I had a heck of a time helping my dudes decide what they were wearing for picture day this year. I finally let them pick – one chose an Avengers shirt and the other a Life is Good one with a dog on it. They both had button downs over the shirts, but, funny, when the pictures came back, they had both ditched the button downs. Sigh.

  14. I’ve often wondered if the photographer gets together with some friends and some beer and chooses the worst pictures of the 2-3 shots they always take and sends those to parents. I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Does anybody like their own school pictures? Their kids’? Nope.

    Fun post, Karen.

  15. Karen, you’ve been holding back on me! This picture is amazing! I’m so in love with awkward school photos, as you know. Not that you’re awkward here. Nope. Nothing looks awkward compared to mine (see left).

    Fingers crossed on this year’s school photos!

    • Truthfully, I thought my mom had all of my school pictures. I don’t have a lot of pictures from those years. When I wrote this post, I had to dig around and see if I even had any of myself. This could have been much worse. And it is the beginning of an awkward era for sure.

  16. I asked my son not to suck his thumb when photos were being taken at kindergarten. He obliged by holding his thumb up like a hitch hiker. It’s one of my favourite photos now.

  17. Hah unfortunately I just got out of that phase a year ago-the wounds are still too raw for humor-and social media got them immortalized. You guys faired luckier-I would have to have whole sites sealed to remove those pictures forever!;-)

  18. Pingback: Reader Appreciation Award « Alpine Mummy

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