Smile or sneer, school picture day is one for the memory books

Lisa Schroeder is one of five local reader columnists for The News Tribune in 2019.
Lisa Schroeder is one of five local reader columnists for The News Tribune in 2019. File photo

My son just got his elementary school picture taken. He recently lost both front teeth so I’m hoping he was able to smile in his picture this year to show off the cute gaps in his mouth.

I filled out the photo studio’s surprisingly discombobulating order form, attached the check and sent both off with my son on the given day. He had carefully picked out his outfit and even practiced smiling in the mirror.

I’m glad there is still the tradition of primary school pictures. To me, they are a hallmark of childhood. It seems a bit funny and outdated that this practice has persisted throughout the era of digital and shareable pictures, which sometimes are only around for seconds.

Nonetheless the physical school picture with the obscure order form and check payment still remain staples of public school life.

To me, school portraits portray a unique passage of time. They show a glimpse of the exclusive feelings and innocence of school children –things so fleeting, they might evolve into something entirely different a week later.

I remember back to my own primary school days and what I did on picture day. I really cared how I looked in my school picture until 4th grade. I can look at my kindergarten through 3rd grade pictures and think about the care I took to look my best.

There’s me, in 1st grade, with curled hair and orange, patchwork dress and a big gummy smile. My two front teeth are just emerging and I’m happily showing them off.

But 4th grade was completely different. I was growing up and didn’t really care about looking good anymore in school pictures. There’s me wearing an old printed T-shirt, slouching, with a sneer on my lips.

My parents knew it was the end of cute kid pictures. My mom began to ask exasperatedly: “Why do you have to ruin the pictures, every time?” (She will still gleefully confirm this today.)

Yet everyone in my family enjoys looking back at school photos because they perfectly capture the emotions, concerns and fashions of those exact eras.

Now with my own child I can try to influence him to care and pull off a certain look in his pictures, but only for only a few more short years.

Last year in kindergarten, my son wasn’t too sure about the photographer, since it was his first time getting a professional portrait. His picture shows a wary look on his unsmiling face. But it still captures a moment in time that has passed too soon.

So now I’m waiting for my son to bring his latest prints home. After seeing how one of my old friends displays her kids’ school pictures, I decided to do it the same way. I’ll keep up his kindergarten picture, then add another frame next to it for each successive year.

Is this why the school photos still exist? Because as parents we now want to remember our own childhoods this way? Or is it because the stiffness, the formality, the emotions felt on that day at that exact moment in time, can’t be captured any other way?

Whatever the case, I hope the tradition keeps enduring for as long as it can.

Lisa Schroeder of Tacoma is a retired journalist, a full-time parent and part-time writer. She’s one of five News Tribune reader columnists for 2019. Reach her at lischro@gmail.com or on Twitter @schroedli.