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Going Dark for School Picture Day


School picture day—fan or foe?


“Can I get the black background?” ten-year-old Brennan asks as I sigh over the photography studio order form where lines like ‘hand pose – optional’ feel painfully retro.

Like the hand pose or photo retouching, the black background is a premium option, which tacks a few extra dollars onto the already-overpriced packages.

“The black background?” I ask. “Why?”

The child who has never before expressed the remotest interest in picture day is excited to explain. “I want to wear all black, with long sleeves,” he says. “So I’m just, like, a floating head.”

I can’t help but laugh. I’ve never been a fan of school picture day—not since I was even younger than Brennan or eight-year-old Liddy. Maybe at their age I still held out hope when I first glimpsed that polystyrene-windowed envelope that held the pictures. Pictures that you were expected to trade with your classmates, on top of the horror of seeing them hang in a row with your siblings on the dining room wall. I learned the hard way they were really a permanent, high-gloss record of chicken pox scars, orthodontics and acne.

Thirty-something years later, with digital cameras on every smartphone and candid portrait photographers ready to capture your child actually smiling, for a pretty reasonable price tag, it’s hard for me to get excited about school picture day. So I can’t help but enjoy the idea of Brennan turning the tradition on its head. So to speak.

“Okay,” I say, to Brennan’s astonishment. “Sure.”

Liddy hears the conversation and demands her own premium option: a painful shade of teal for her background. “And can you ask them not to fix my hair?” she asks.

“Oh, Lids,” I sigh. “I don’t really think they’d listen.”

“I know,” Liddy says. “And the way they keep telling you to smile bigger and bigger? It’s like they want you to look ugly.”

“Exactly,” Brennan chimes in.

The pictures won’t go on our walls. The kids will cut out a couple of wallet-sized photos to pass on to their cousins. Grandparents will get framed 5x7s at the holidays. And the rest will get tucked, envelope and all, deep into a closet with the previous years’ entries, to be pulled out when the kids want to laugh over their grimace-smiles, and those of their classmates, in the annual class picture.

“I’m Brennan,” Liddy says, and then perfectly imitates his forced smile. These are the exact conversations my siblings and I had around school picture day when we were kids. It’s as if the same people are in charge of the whole thing. The poses, the glaring light, the weird, dated, backgrounds.

I know from talking to friends that some schools have jumped forward a decade or two in their handling of it all. But for my kids’ school, picture day is like a timestamp from the early eighties, right down to the photographer’s assistant who is aggressive with a comb, and the plastic windowed envelopes holding the final product.

“Am I a terrible parent?” I ask my husband John on the morning of picture day. Brennan is rummaging through his closet for the black fleece that zips up to his chin. “I mean, should I make them wear clothes that at least look half-way decent?”

“Well, I don’t care.’ John says, as he fixes his tie perfectly without even needing to consult a mirror. “And you don’t care. So if they have strong ideas about it …” He shrugs.

“Right,” I say. “Okay.”

The kids head out the door on time, Liddy in an arrangement of turquoise on turquoise, Brennan shrouded head-to-toe in black. Both have a little extra skip in their step.

*   *   *

“She pushed my cheeks up!” a friend of Liddy’s is saying to her as they climb into the backseat at pickup time. “I just closed my mouth again as soon as she let go.”

Liddy giggles. “I know, right? Why do they try to make you show your teeth?”

I resist the urge to add my two cents, but can’t ignore the fact that these are exactly the same reactions we had on school picture day when I was a kid.

A few hours pass and then Brennan comes home from his after-school program and reports cheerfully on the photographer’s reaction to his premium background choice.

‘Oh….you chose black!‘” he mimics in an alarmed, high-pitched voice.

Later on, at bedtime, I attempt to prepare him for the possibility that his school pictures might not turn out exactly as he’s imagined. “You know,” I say. “They might tweak the lighting so you don’t just look like a floating head.”

“I know,” Brennan shrugs, only a little deflated. But he still has hope. “Maybe they won’t! I just can’t wait to see how the pictures turn out.”

I have to admit that, for once, I feel the same way.


Photo by Megan Dempsey

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This entry was written by Karen Dempsey

About the author: Karen Dempsey has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her @karenedempsey.

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