Checkerboards to Mortarboards
Every first day of every new school year we (my brother, sister and I) would be called out by our mother to have our pictures taken. I recall the early and oftentimes nippy mornings, the frosted September grass underfoot, and the cold brilliance of the rising sun causing us to squint toward the camera.
I thought very little of those morning moments then, but with the exception of the year I was forever frozen in a photograph wearing an orange paisley shirt and blue paisley tie, I very much appreciate those chilly sunrise snapshots now. Thankfully, that particular fashion combination has long since been banished by federal mandate and unanimous public outcry.
The pictures help me remember that simple 2nd grade boy who began the year with the smooth, white casts encasing two fractured wrists. That preceding summer I had fallen out of a backyard oak tree while hanging upside down from a limb that I had been painting with water (don’t ask). I recall two things because of that: 1) Thanks to my heavy, cast-fortified forearms, I became the best tether ball player in the class and, 2) the casts also meant that I didn’t have to bathe as often (hey, this was significant for a 7-year-old boy).
There’s the photo of the 11-year-old Beatles fan complete with Beatle bangs and a scratchy orange Nehru jacket, bringing to mind all the time I spent alone in my room, privately working on a British accent for all the girls to swoon over. Alas, I was also a chicken and remained “cool” only in my room.
Another picture, this time of a semi-smirking 16-year-old know-it-all with a first few silky hairs sprouting from his chin, looking more like a small patch of barren crabgrass than the manly beard I wanted. My junior year fluctuated between the rubber-soled, basketball sounds of my sneakers squeaking against the hardwood gym floor and the peeling rubber from the tires of my parent’s Ford Galaxy. I’m positive I impressed the entire community with both my astonishing driving speeds (upwards of 45 mph, hey, we’re talking Ford Galaxy here) and my unerring driving skills.
My senior picture shows an earnest young man dressed in a dark suit with a dark tie and… gym shorts. Remember that back then senior photos were chiseled into rock slabs, just kidding. They were taken in our school cafeteria with four optional poses, looking right—left—straight ahead or facing backwards (some did this but with the long hair of the day, it wasn’t even noticed). Also, all shots were taken from the waist up, so it didn’t matter what one wore below the belt (shorts, longs, tutu, another belt… it simply didn’t matter).
Finally, after what had seemed like many, many long years to me, probably seeming like mere moments to my parents (with the exception of the year I got my first electric guitar), I accepted my diploma, transferred my tassel, strode out of the auditorium and into my future. All the while I was under my parents’ gaze and, of course, the camera’s eye. Later, I wondered what they thought at that moment and what they saw with parental eyes…
With parental eyes, I watched my kids accept their diplomas and recalled how I loved to call them outside, atop the frosted grass and in the early sun’s bright light, for their first-day-of-school pictures. It was so important to me, that each year I would arrange for time off from work to take them to school every first day of the new school year. (Until they finally had to tell me, “Dad, it’s time to stop now. We’ve all graduated.”)
I remember how conflicting emotions swirled and clashed deep within my heart at having to leave them in unfamiliar surroundings for the very first time—the back packs strapped across little shoulders, the superhero lunch boxes with the cookies and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches inside.
I remember the elementary school programs with the miniature people onstage, shuffling about, many intently focused on the teacher’s cues, some nervously looking for their parents and others looking for a quick getaway; all the tiny voices singing out (out-of-time and out-of-key). The novice and nervous musicians with their squeaking, squawking and screeching instruments, all sounding in perfect pitch and harmony to the beaming parents with their flashing cameras.
I remember attending every sporting game they ever played, alternately cheering and fearing for them but always there, win or lose, rooting for the home team. I watched the hulking, yellow buses rumble on past our house each morning as the kids (‘Finally,’ to them, ‘Already?’ to us) drove themselves off to school.
Of course I realize I’ll never know many of the influential experiences they have had—the first kiss, the first heartbreak, and the shared secrets with buddies. The school dances, class assemblies and the teachers with whom they connected, but thankfully I have photo albums stuffed with school pictures that help me remember what little I do know of their school year times.
Finally, after what had seemed like mere moments to me (except for the Nintendo era) but probably like many, many long years to them, there I was, watching them stride from the auditorium, my teary eye lining up the camera lens.