Some moments in our lives exist as static, frozen relics, preserved in the dark hideaways of our memories. Still others thaw at the onset of specific events: a death in the family awakens a childhood vacation, a song on the radio envelops you with an embrace, or a smell from the kitchen wafts through your eyes as tears. Other moments are manufactured, meant to immortalize a time period while being insincere at best. The most perfect example I can find of this phenomenon is School Picture Day.
Kids on School Picture Day fall into one of two categories: The ones whose parents know about it, forcing them to wear their cutest, most adorable outfits to school, and the ones who put the letter at the bottom of their backpacks and show up that day wearing their finest ripped t-shirt from the bottom of the hamper (see also: boys).
When I was a kid, my school district was small enough that the yearbook included school pictures for all students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. You had one shot to look decent for a keepsake destined to gather dust in a basement or library for all foreseeable eternity. School Picture Day was your permanent record.
As I grew older, I wanted more independence to dress in the styles of the time. The style then could best be expressed as loud, bright, and straight out of the Saved by The Bell costume department. On one School Picture Day, I decided to wear a floral top with its matching floral skirt – even though the skirt wouldn’t be visible in the photo. I had to wear it, though, because it completed the Lisa Turtle-style ensemble. Pairing it with black Keds assured that I had nailed my period costume.
‘Everyone line up at the door,’ the teacher announced on the blessed morning of School Picture Day. ‘We’re walking to the library. Quiet in the hallways.’
We walked through the hallways, then outside on covered walkways, then back to hallways, winding our way through the corridors to the double doors that opened into the library. Because it had no windows and plenty of sturdy hiding places, our library had at one time been designated as a safe place to take cover in the event of an earthquake. Of course, it was assumed that we would actually be able to walk safely down a violently shaking series of hallways during THE BIG ONE. Our little town was situated along the New Madrid Fault Zone and a ‘scientist’ on his deathbed had predicted a major earthquake a few years prior. Somehow, the rumor escalated, and all of the schoolchildren in the tri-state area began working on drills as their families became doomsday-preppers, keeping many kids out of school on the predicted date which came and went with a whimper.
The same qualities that made our library a safe haven in the event of a disaster of monumental proportions also made it a nice setup for a cheerfully orchestrated school photograph. As we went into the library on School Picture Day, only one set of lights was on overhead, illuminating the entrance. To the left, deeper into the stacks, the only lights shining were those used by the photographer.
The teacher stopped us. She walked down the line, brandishing a handful of black plastic combs and a trash can. Most of the boys were immediately deemed in need of grooming, having already managed to muss their locks playing pickup football games during morning recess. They received a combing, the teacher discarding each comb in the trash can as she moved down the line, seeking out hair irregularities.
My hair, in the typical fashion of the time, had been sprayed stiff in my ignorant personal contribution to the erosion of the ozone layer. However, I had also been outside for morning recess and hadn’t realised that the humidity (the chief export of the South) had turned my long locks into waves while my bangs still stood frozen an inch above my forehead in a demonstration of Arkansas physics. The only thing I did know was that my lipstick was still good to go. I could feel it, caked on my lips, removable only by turpentine and steel wool.
As each person moved through the line, I began to catch pieces of the photographer’s instructions.
‘Okay, sweetheart, turn your head this way. Watch my finger. Now, look up a bit. Chin up—not that much—okay, now look at Big Bird and smile!’
‘O…kay, thank you, sugar. NEXT!’
He completed this process in about ten seconds for each student, even managing to change out rolls of film at a record pace. As I inched closer, I noticed that he was also carefully positioning faces in the proper direction for those who had difficulty following his instructions – all while holding his time-frame steady.
I didn’t think much of it back then. Now, I have to wonder what pharmaceutical-grade brand of coffee the poor guy had to drink for breakfast to run such an efficient memory-creating assembly line.
When I was about three kids away from my turn, I discreetly practised my smile. I wanted to look as confident and beautiful as some of the big kids in my old yearbooks at home. Sure, I had braces, but not many of my classmates did, so I thought I already looked more mature.
A few short minutes after had I smiled to a stack of overdue library books, it was my turn.
‘Hi, sweetheart. Okay, put your toes on the line and sit on the box. Okay, now turn your head this way—just like that. Stay right there. Okay, look up a little bit—not quite—a little lower—there you go. Okay, watch my finger and move your eyes this way. Take a look at Big Bird. 1-2-3, SMILE!’
As quickly as I was able to see that he did indeed have a stuffed Big Bird sitting on top of the camera, I was blinded by the flash and it was over and done in a fraction of a minute that was supposed to immortalize an entire year.
‘Thank you, sweetheart. NEXT!’
I stood up and walked over to the line designated for those of us who were finished, blinking back the little spots that stood in my field of vision. Within five more minutes, the rest of the class was done, and we were ready to go back to the business of learning.
After returning to class, the only thing we could do was learn, because we had to wait several weeks to see proofs of our pictures. We were all dressed up for the rest of a regular school day. A few weeks dragged along, one day merging into the next, until, as the last of the leaves fell from the trees, the day arrived that reminded us that we had had our pictures taken.
‘Okay, be sure to take these home and return them with money if your parents want to order photo packages. Re-takes are in two weeks for anyone who missed school that day or anyone who wants to take it again,’ my teacher explained.
She called our names as we were packing up for the end of the day. Each student went to her desk, and all of the responses were similar as each student sat back down.
‘This is terrible!’
‘Mine looks awful!’
I heard my name near the middle of the pack and walked to the teacher’s desk. The blue sheet of paper had one wallet-sized proof on the left, along with ordering instructions and an adhesive strip to turn the sheet into an envelope to hold money.
I looked at the upper-left hand side, and I immediately chimed in with the rest of my classmates, declaring my picture ‘bad’.
My hair, which was quite long and thick at the time, had, during the preceding summer and unbeknownst to me – since I saw myself in the mirror every day and never noticed gradual details – turned a shade of sun-bleached blonde that could only be called ‘Eww’ on the Clairol color wheel. I’m a natural brunette, so this detail was indeed shocking. My skin held the deep, rich tan of an Arkansas-based beach bum quite well, but my hair fell below my shoulders in stringy, wavy tresses, reminiscent of spaghetti-day in the cafeteria.
The lipstick I’d been so proud to wear popped off the glossy veneer like Waldo’s trademark striped sweater. I had spared no expense in making my lips conspicuous, which, in turn, drew attention to the breakfast crud caked on one of the metal brackets on my teeth. I’d apparently missed a spot while brushing that morning.
In short, it was ‘bad’.
And I had a classmate confirm it for me. ‘Sara, what happened?’ she asked, equally aghast at her own photo.
‘I didn’t know my hair was really that color,’ I replied.
‘It’s not anymore,’ she said.
‘Are you gonna do a re-take?’ I asked her.
‘If my parents let me, I will,’ she responded, reminding me that the photographer charged up front for re-takes if you had been present on School Picture Day. Plus, in all the years I’d looked at the yearbooks from school, they never used the re-take. If you were absent, they simply inscribed ‘PHOTO NOT AVAILABLE’ in the little rectangle corresponding with your name. They went with the first proof they received, meaning that I was going to be immortalized in black and white as a blonde.
My brother brought his home. It didn’t look at all bad to any of us. The background was light, but he matched it well.
‘Can I get a re-take? PLEASE?’ I begged, knowing that my footing in the grade school universe was deeply rooted in looks and appearance.
‘We’ll see,’ my mom said.
‘I’ll pay for it out of my piggy bank,’ I said, proving that I wasn’t as grown-up as I thought.
‘If you’ll take it out of your allowance, then I suppose you can,’ she replied.
I pulled the plug out of the bottom of my piggy bank that night, unrolling wadded dollar bills until I had enough for a re-take.
Since I really liked the outfit I had worn for the first picture, I wore the same thing on re-take day (with tights to keep my legs warm against the autumn chill). My hair had returned to its original color and Mom helped me fix it that morning, making a great effort to spray anything that wasn’t nailed down or clipped back with a barrette. I also applied a darker shade of lipstick and took pains to brush my teeth as thoroughly as one with braces could.
I was one of about two dozen in my grade who had another photo taken, which probably seemed quite vain in the pre-selfie era. I went through the process all over again – at a slightly slower pace – then waited again for the proofs to come back for my review. It was my last shot for the year.
A few weeks later, I received my new proof, and it was a marked improvement on the previous one, although girls can always find fault with their own image. Still, it was better, and my parents ordered a package to send out to family and friends in the mail and have enough left over to follow me through several moves as an adult.
As the academic year drew to a close, my thoughts drifted to summer. Yearbooks were delivered in the fall of the following school year and, when I finally received mine, I didn’t want to look. I knew they had probably used the original proof, and I was already starting out the new year as the ‘smart kid’. I didn’t need to add fuel to the social outcast fire. However, much to my surprise and delight, the editors of the yearbook had chosen to use my re-take on our class page.
After the conversion to black and white, though, my brother’s photo hadn’t fared as well. The background for the shots appeared blindingly white. White enough to match a white shirt. He smiled out at us as a floating head and neck in a box.
‘Where’s the rest of your body?’ I teased, as we flipped past his page, laughing.
Manufactured memories can become as funny as spontaneous ones. In our case, I’d ended up with a decent school photo that is still stuck to the refrigerator doors of many relatives, while my brother ended up losing all his extremities in the yearbook’s post-processing phase. While neither photograph truly tells the story of an entire academic year of our lives, we can look at those pictures and see chains of stories attached to our single moment of looking ever so briefly into a lens.
Sara Garland holds degrees in Journalism and Music Education from Arkansas State University. Her short story, “Dangerous and Armed,” won Best in Show in the Adult Creative Writing division of the Arkansas State Fair in 2015. Her work has appeared in Potato Soup Journal, Pilcrow & Dagger, and is forthcoming in Mystery Tribune and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.