Covid, Parenting

Week 33: Ode to School Pictures

Is it weird that of all the things I could be missing about this school year, one of the things I’m missing most is school pictures? It’s not like I don’t have tens of thousands of pictures of my kids. I do (and more). School pictures are not unique. They do not showcase gorgeous scenery, or impeccable light, or an interesting activity. They usually aren’t even an accurate depiction of what my children look like on a daily basis. (Collared shirts and combed hair?)

Ordinarily, I’m the first to complain about school pictures: why are they unnecessarily expensive? What could I possibly do with 20 wallet sized photos? Does the photographer purposely try to get unnatural smiles?

Why am I feeling this relatively insignificant loss more than the abundance of monumental losses? Like, say, going to school 5 days a week?

I suspect it’s not really about the pictures. 

My grandparents had a wall in their TV room where they hung two rows of pictures. The top row featured a yearly rotation of my sisters, brother and I. The bottom row was my three cousins. The cheap frames lined golden yellow walls with small flecks of dark red diamond shapes.

Sometimes the pictures were askew in the frame; sometimes the frames were askew on the wall. But for decades, they remained. They marked our growth from pigtails to barrettes. Missing teeth to braces. Bare lashes to first attempts at mascara.

They seemed to be such a centerpiece of the room. Even in not-so-flattering years, when it was even harder to ignore them, I remember feeling like at least there was safety in numbers up there in the line up.

My grandparents lived a couple of hours away. When I think about it now, it feels like we went up to visit often, though I’m not sure how time has warped my perception. I’m sure there were times when I didn’t feel like leaving my friends for a long weekend at my grandparents, but I don’t remember those. I remember playing cards instead of watching TV, banging on the old piano they had in the basement, dinners around the big table in the dining room. Those school pictures stood as a constant backdrop to warm memories — holidays, school vacations, and special occasions.

My own kids school pictures have their place in matching frames on the mantle above the fireplace. Replacing them takes 3 minutes. I don’t think about where I will put them, if I have the right size frame, if the coloring will work.

Class pictures are easy. Predictable. Reliable. A tradition that spans generations. Class pictures aren’t important. But maybe that’s why the loss feels bigger than it actually is. They represent everything we are currently lacking —predictable, reliable, traditions. Can’t one trivial thing that has always been, just continue on?

In a year where big, important, necessary and inevitable changes are happening, can’t we still have this one silly thread that unites us all? Across our divided country, class pictures look nearly identical. And while hair and fashion may change, the awkward head tilt, the plastic smile, the textured blue background, is the same across decades.

Now more than ever, we need the class picture. We need evidence of something familiar. We need evidence of smiling faces; the friends who sat with us and made us laugh during this unpredictable year. We were here. We survived. Maybe, if they existed, class pictures would convince us — years from now — that 2020 wasn’t that bad.

Has it been that bad? I mean, I’m lamenting school photos. Clearly, not the toughest of laments. But also, I’m lamenting school photos. This must be misplaced anxiety or stress.

For 33 weeks, I’ve been trying not to focus on what we’re missing. It’s getting tiresome. As we head into the holiday season with numbers of cases and deaths not rounding the corner, I’m hearing more and more references to Covid fatigue.

The word fatigue can be traced back to Latin. It’s related to the word affatim meaning  “to satiety or surfeit,” and the verb fatisci meaning to “crack, split.” In other words, to have so much of something, you crack. 

Yes, Covid fatigue. 

And to have the final blow come at the hands of class pictures is just so…2020.

Not having my kids’ 3rd and 5th grade pictures will be the (missing) evidence that I cracked. I got stuffed full of Covid and cracked just before the holiday season.

I suspect my sudden and acute nostalgia for class pictures lies here somewhere. The holidays are approaching. It’s been over a year since we’ve seen extended family and faraway friends and it’s unclear when we will again. Beneath all the superficial missings (school, sports, eating out) lie the profound missings (people, relationships, ways of life).

The absence of class pictures from 2020 is more fitting tribute to this year. A reminder of the school year with the asterisk. A reminder that even when grocery store shelves were empty, we weren’t really starving. When we were up at 2am, we weren’t scurrying to a bomb shelter. Our sacrifices have been real but not impossible.

We’ll know this because we have pictures of our kids sitting behind screens still laughing. We have videos we sent to grandparents because we knew watching our faces would make them smile. We have cards from neighbors and whiny essays about how hard it all was.

When we looked at the string of photos from kindergarten through high school, we’ll know the 2020 gap year was not lost. It was not the year that broke us. It was the year we were forced to find a better way; forced to reevaluate and reconsider. The missing year is evidence of our refocusing.

Because seriously, why do I have to get 20 wallet sized photos to get one 8×10? How is that cheaper?

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