It’s school day picture season and I am nearing the end of a 12-year photographic adventure with my son. The next chapter of his life is set to begin after he graduates from high school in a few months. We just received his senior photos.
His mother and I never know what we were going to see when we open up his school photo folder over the past 12 years. He may have been making a goofy smile, or a strange face, or pulling some photo prank as a joke.
To his credit, he has never been concerned with what his class photo looked like in any individual year. It’s his attitude with most things He rolls with the punches. For the first 10 years of his life, we couldn’t get him to wear underwear. That might not be a big deal unless, when playing on the swing-set on the playground during recess you fall out of the swing, and— wait for it— your pants stay in the swing. Yes, that was just an average Tuesday in the life of my son when he was in elementary school. I have hundreds of stories like that. My wife had to make a few calls to other fourth-grade moms whose daughters might have been scarred by, what we now refer to as, the swing-set incident.
The crazy thing about that episode is that when his mother picked him up from school that day and asked— as she did every day— “what happened at school today?” The swing-set incident and being buck-naked from the waist down on the school playground didn’t even register. He talked about what he ate for lunch, and later, what he had for a snack. She had to hear about the swing-set incident from a teacher. Had something like that happened to me in the fourth grade, I would have changed schools, maybe changed towns.
When my son and daughter were small, I purchased a frame that was supposed to hold all 12 wallet-sized school day photos. I haven’t seen it since the day I bought it, so I have yet to see all of his school day photos together in one place. Though looking at his senior portrait today was a bittersweet moment.
Even though the boy lives in the house with us, and we spend time together every day, I felt like I didn’t know the person I was looking at in the photos. No longer is he the little boy who used to wear superhero costumes when I took him to the theatre to watch the new release of the latest superhero movie. He is a man. His mother can’t talk about it without tearing up. We blinked and this happened.
Even with the occasional goofy smile, his school day photos are a collection of a good-hearted fun-loving collection of kid-without-a-care-in-the-world photographs. My school day photos, on the other hand, were a 12-year nightmare collection of godawful haircuts, bad teeth, awkward clothes, and uncomfortable expressions. It all stems from one photograph that has followed me since the second grade. All of those unfortunate components came together on one fateful day at Thames Elementary School in Mrs. Hinton’s second-grade class.
There were several “big days” that occurred throughout the elementary school year back in the 1960s and 1970s. Field trips were like mini vacations. Anytime they let us out of class for an assembly or school play was a bonus. Though no day was bigger than the day we received our school photos. The excitement in the air on school photo day was palpable. When we walked into the class before the first bell rang, the photos were always stacked on the corner of the teacher’s desk. We all knew we weren’t going to see them until a few minutes before the final bell rang, but the anticipation affected everyone throughout the entire day. It’s all we could think about.
On school photo day my second-grade year, Mrs. Hinton skipped her usual end-of-the-day story about a family of mice and sat in a chair in front of her desk at the head of the class room, the stack of photo envelopes in her lap. All eyes were on her, and we were unusually quiet, as she methodically opened each envelope, pulled out the photo inside, and then called the corresponding student up to the front of the class to pick up his, or her, school day photo.
She was a small, but sweet, lady who had been teaching for several decades at that point. “Chris Bowen,” she announced as she opened the first envelope. Chris walked down the aisle of tiny desks to get his photo packet. Mrs. Hinton handed the photo envelope to him and waited for him to return to his seat before calling the next student’s name. It was a process that seemed to take hours. Everyone was anxious and ready to start trading wallet-sized photos with friends.
The calling of names continued, “Laura Foote, Susan Cook, Virginia Baker.” The entire process was random. It wasn’t like when the roll was called in alphabetical order. She didn’t know which student’s photo she held until she pulled it out of the envelope.
More names were called until she finally pulled one photograph out of the envelope and began to laugh. It wasn’t just a polite, ladylike giggle. It was a full-on belly laugh that seemed to last for minutes. The entire class leaned forward to see whose photograph was eliciting such a response. Mrs. Hinton tried to compose herself. The room was still. Everyone was hanging on the next two words that were about to come out of our teacher’s mouth. We were on the edge of our desks. Trying hard to hide a smile, Mrs. Hinton— with a slight tinge of pity in her voice— said, “Robert St. John.”
The entire classroom busted out into a huge round of laughter as I slumped down in my desk, and then made the long, slow walk of shame to the front of the class to pick up the photograph. Looking at it, it was worse than I even expected. Mrs. Hinton had been kind. My teeth were crooked, my eyes were crooked, one ear appeared bigger than the other, and my mother had failed in her attempt to tame my three cowlicks with a half of a jar of Dippity Doo (though it might have been Brylcreem that day). It was a nightmare of a school-day photo.
There would be no trading this photo with friends. I went home and tried to hide it in a drawer until my mother asked, “Weren’t you supposed to get your school photos back today?”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied.
“Well, where are they?” I dug them out of the drawer. She opened the packet and laughed, too, and even harder than Mrs. Hinton had laughed. It was a humiliating end to an embarrassing day.
Fast forward 50 years and my daughter— who has never taken a bad photograph, ever— framed and hung my second-grade photo among the 500 historic Hattiesburg photographs on the walls of our new restaurant. It’s right there at table eight. So far, no one has asked to move, or complained of being sick to their stomach. I’m thinking of replacing the photo with my son’s recent senior portrait. It’s a much better representation of the St. John family— whether he’s wearing underwear, or not.