Twenty-two years later: when a school picture is so wrong, it’s right

I first got glasses when I was about twelve, but at my visit to a new optometrist recently, I found out something to make me resent all of my other eye doctors, anyone who ever complained that I can’t seem to handle a regular camera flash, and everyone who’s not bothered by the brightness of most living room lamps. I always just chalked it up to my blue eyes and general irritating oversensitivity.

I needed new glasses but I was dreading the check-up because of those pupil-dilating eye-drops — I was going right into a lunch meeting afterwards and could not do it in shades and a visor hat. But I learned something new when the doctor peered into my eyes.

He said my pupils are abnormally large — a genetic kink, apparently — and this is probably why I’m so sensitive to light. He said he didn’t even need to dilate them to look clear into the back of my eyeballs.

Oh cruel optometrists of my youth.

The revelation was timely, given the school photo from 1993 that surfaced in the Facebook feed this week.

I was 10 years old. Many were even younger. But we all remember that excruciatingly sunny day in early fall. It was the day that a professional photographer decided to pose us all with the sun shining directly into our eyes.

As you can see, we were an extremely small school. And Saturday was the only blessed day of the week most of us didn’t have to go to a chapel or church service. Each year, we posed for a picture of all the faculty and students, and 1993 was a particularly exciting year: we were about to move into a newly constructed wing of the school building. I’m sure that’s the reason someone decided dirt and cinderblocks would make a lovely backdrop for our group portrait.

Look near the center of the second row from the back: there is a woman in a green dress with a white collar who has mastered the blinding situation with a good humor and aplomb that she always applied to life in general. She still teaches art at the school now, and I’m sure I owe a lot of my inspiration for my career as an arts writer to her. But the best thing she ever did may have been to give her students a world-beating supply of poster paints and, on one glorious afternoon, let us go to town on the wall and windows that would be knocked away for the addition.

I’ve made no secret of my recent state of mind, but after looking at this picture again for the first time in at least ten years, I laughed until I wept. I bent over my iPhone, magnifying the historic picture with my fingers so that I could savor every glower, every sneeze. And I guffawed so hard I had to lie down. This goes far beyond the patterns, puffs, bangs, and planet-sized glasses of the early 90’s.

In retrospect, it seems like an important, perhaps even prophetic moment of growth. Many of us clearly regarded our instruction to smile directly into the light source of our solar system as the utter folly that it was. Perhaps it was dawning on us that other things, in time, would not go our way, and there would not be a darn thing we could do about it.

Part of what I love about this photo is how we children, for the most part, are the ones who seem to grasp the absurdity of the moment, kneeling in the dirt in our school-picture-day best under UV rays (as a schoolmate would note on Facebook 22 years later) that would have incinerated lice.

The faculty members are trying their best. But check out the pastor in the middle here:

His co-workers to the right and left are gamely making the best of it. But his bewilderment is breaking through.

I am the pastor, I imagine him thinking. For God’s sake, whose idea was this?

Some of us seem to have just taken a little nap. Others tried so hard — like the young sir below in the collared navy blue shirt on the right. He grew up and became a police officer. I like to think that the sheer determination he called upon to look into the lens that day in 1993 serves him in good stead as he patrols the streets of Baltimore today.

And then there’s this little boy.

Put your hands flat on your legs, the photographer must have said. There’s a commitment to following orders here, to embodying clean and correct angles despite great physical adversity, which probably presaged this boy’s career as a US Air Force pilot.

And of course, there’s always the kid who carries just about anything off with total cool, even when stuck holding the school banner:

And then there’s what may be the pièce de résistance:

I count at least two sneezes in progress, with one or two more possibly imminent. The kid in red and white stripes, a future computer science whiz, has been famous in our little crew ever since this picture was printed. I especially appreciate the photographer’s timing here: the “AHHH” captured in red and white, with the “CHOO!” coming at the bottom left.

Also of note:  the pink sweater at top right, now a mom to two beautiful little boys.

This face has no pretensions. Really? it asks. REALLY?

But I also can’t ignore the little girl in blue.

To me, her look bespeaks more than the suffering, frustration, or blatant apathy that most of us feel. Her face reminds me of how I felt on one long-ago 4th of July when all the dads in the neighborhood drank a bunch of beers and then decided to launch a bottle rocket war among the dark houses while all the kids were still running around.

I lost a degree of faith in the good judgment of adults that night which I never fully regained.

This little girl seems to be having a similar moment. The people who planned and purchased this photo, I imagine her thinking, are responsible for our education and daily well-being.

She became a brilliant neuroscientist.

Yes, I’m in the picture, too. Can you find me, dear readers?

Need one more look at this whole glorious mess? Here you go.

Because you never know when the worst school picture day of all time could be a reminder of why it’s good to be alive, over two decades later.

What was your most memorable school photo?



Add yours →

  1. Alaina, so funny and well written. Thanks for making me smile on a tough day after snow removal! The 2 stages of the sneeze made me laugh out loud, and I love the curious beginnings-with-great-endings story for several people in the picture.

    Here’s my “story” about the cute little blonde girl in the 3rd row….just able to get her face showing up in the picture. she has one eye shut to avoid the lice-frying light beams.
    She was a reader from day one it seems ! she read everything her parents could get for her….and then she read them again. She could draw and paint too…her framed cartoons depicting her dad’s scary but lovable Ridgeback dog hang in the family room still.
    Eventually her unique skill and love of writing launched her into a successful and growing career…. that her dad still thinks will take her to sydicated -column- book-writing GLORY.
    Her dad is A TREMENDOUS, devoted fan of hers….and Is still telling everyone he bumps into about what a distinctly great writer she is…. (while secretly hoping her eventual writing empire will keep him safely roofed and fed in case investments dry up)
    This girl now has a hugely popular, thought-stirring blog. Is published often in a myriad of on-line and printed mediums……and also heard online and on the radio being interviewed about her writing or discussions about what it’s like to “be a millennial”.
    She also teaches an adult class on blogging in a big scary school.
    Oh yeah….she also put an entire small church system on its collective ear with her first published book. Yup, she wrote and published a real book. People loved it, some hated it…but they loved every minute of hating it, even if they haven’t realized it yet. Funny thing is…that’s exactly what she intended by writing it in the first place.
    She is an amazing and successful and unique individual.

    • Da-aaad, you’re embarrassing me!!

      Thanks as always for the support. I don’t know about glory, but for now I’m happy to pay the bills doing something I love. Also, to be fair, I wouldn’t characterize this blog as hugely popular — but I do love my medium-sized bunch of devoted readers.

      How do you know the school is scary?

  2. A glorious sunny day in the life of the Washington New Church School – so much potential in so few. I’m so proud to see what you have all become. I’d like to think your roots had a little to do with that :-).

    • Hooray for Mrs. J — by “so much potential in so few,” I’m sure you’re referring merely to the tiny size of the school, as everyone in the picture had enormous potential.

  3. This is a very entertaining blog post and very touchy subject for me because I love photography. This post brings up so many funny memories of my own childhood school days with photogtaraphers who seemed to always push the camera’s shutter button when it’s most embarrassing for the person in front of the lens. I imagine them thinking to themselves “yes I nailed that shot,” which is a feeling I always get when I know that I have the shot.

  4. Terrific post. And you nailed that last line. My favorite school photo moment was in 7th grade, when the teacher was going up and down the aisles handing each student our brand new individual school photo. When she got to me, she took one look at my photo and burst out laughing.

    You don’t forget a moment like that quickly.

  5. I do not know how I missed this before. looking at all those squished faces made me laugh harder than I had in months. this is a great article, I hope this picture shows up some day as a “before they were famous”.

  6. I was just commenting to my husband last night about wanting to take a look at his school yearbook and see what a cutie he was. Today he sent me a link to your blog and there he is, the first part of the sneeze, my photogenic computer wiz in red and white stripes. Thank you for your commentary on one of the funniest group photos I have ever seen.

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