In the 12-oval mat of the “School Years” picture frame of my life (I never had one, but imagine I did), there are six photos occupying the right half of the frame. The rest are empty circles because we didn’t do school pictures in homeschool. But the six photos that do exist follow a School Picture Pattern, beginning with pigtails and ribbons and a Peter Pan collar peeking over a lavender argyle sweater (thanks, Mom) and following through various stages of teeth loss and bang lengths until you get to a pale-face, squinty-eyed fifth grade portrait that screams “I dressed myself” but also “I’m having a rough year here, okay?” Large out-of-place front teeth on an awkward smile replace the tiny Tic-Tac teeth in the kindergarten photo, and the worst haircut of my life cancels out every good braid from the previous five years.
When I look at the first few pictures, I smile and see my mom–how she dressed me, how she sewed for me, how satisfied she must have been sending me off to school those mornings, her little girl the picture of a McCall’s pattern cover, a mini-me, a reflection of her style. I can still smell her Halston perfume in the bathroom, feel her thumb grazing my forehead as she slowly and carefully dragged the scissors across my bangs and snipped the most perfect straight line, fresh for school picture day. I can feel the comb against my scalp as it split an even part, her tug on one side of my head as she pulled equal pieces and wove them into braids, not a hair out of place. Ribbons tied under collars, cuffs pulled out at the edge of a sleeve, bangs curled slightly under—just a tad more innocence to soften the blow of “off she goes.” The pictures were nothing short of precious. And then fifth grade, I see—well I don’t even know what the hell that was. “Could you at least have rubbed a little blush on my cheeks?” I ask my mom. “And seriously, the maxed-out turtleneck? I look like an ass.” Except I would never say that to my mom because, even though I remind her the word is in the Bible, she’d quickly snap back, “Kel-leeeee. Watch your mouth.”
While brilliant sparks of Lainey’s own personal style have naturally emitted over the years—and we’ve celebrated them—there’s no doubt her early school pictures reflect a lot of my own style as mine did my mother’s. I mean, I’m the one who bought her clothes, and she was fine with my choices. She happily approved my suggestions for “Let’s curl those pigtails” and “How about this dress?” and my borderline stage mom direction of “Smile your soft smile, not a fake one.”
How much involvement we have in our kids’ style choices seems to be yet another topic for bored mothers to judge others, perhaps another post for another day. But I will say, as Lainey hugged me goodbye at her classroom door the other day and found her place in line—the first class of the day on their way to the school picture room—I noticed the evolution of the school portrait has shifted. Gone are the tiny teeth and the curly pigtails, the bangs, the sweet collars, the corduroy jumpers, the “Mom, can you do my hair?”
And in their place…one word: Justice.
Damn you, Justice! Damn you and your sparkly threads and your hashtag shirts and your googly-eyed stuffed animals and lockets and secret diaries that lure them in. I have some feelings on Justice—both the store and the civil right. But because the thirst for Justice (the store) has pervaded what seems to be the entire third grade class of our school, my girl wants some sparkle and some fringe and some “PIZZA HAS MY HEART” spelled out in silver sequins against the brightest pink you’ve ever seen.
Alone in the mall last week, I walked by Justice and decided to go in—the thought of how ecstatic she’d be with a random surprise gift, my fuel. I passed a rack of minion apparel, a bedazzled “More Friday, Less Monday” shirt and a shelf of tie-dye leggings before I landed on something that spoke her name—a loose white t-shirt with a heart and “love” scrawled out in loopy script, and the bottom cut into dramatic fringe. It wasn’t what I would pick, but Lainey? She’d love it. I asked the clerk for a gift box, imagining her excitement seeing the Justice logo on the top, and wrapped the gift when I got home.
“Wait, is that from that store she’s been talking about?” Brett asked.
“Yeah, Justice, why?”
“Because I wanted to be the one to get her something from there.”
“Then it can be from you,” I smiled.
Later that night, I watched in complete permagrin state as she opened her dad’s special gift to her. She was ecstatic—tried it on as soon as it was freed from tissue paper and looked at herself in the mirror with an approving smile. The next day outfit planning quickly followed as she scurried through her room pairing leggings and high boots and a clip-on barrette with a dangly feather, organizing it all together in a perfect stack on her dresser. That’s when I saw the sticker on her backpack: “Don’t forget! Tomorrow’s Picture Day!” Well, crap.
“Oh, I have an idea!” I offered, rummaging through the accessories drawer until I found a detachable Peter Pan collar that ties in the back. “You could wear this with it!” Fingers crossed.
She rolled her eyes and if she knew to say “F#@*, no!” I’m sure she would have.
“Mom. Uuughhh. No.”
Damn you, Justice.
She woke up earlier than usual the next morning, dressed and ready before anyone else.
“Do you want me to do your hair?” I asked, hopeful. “I mean, however you want it, of course.”
“Nope.” She brushed it back, braided it to the side all by herself and clipped the dangly feather in place. “I’m ready.”
I didn’t remind her how to smile or even bother straightening the loose hair escaping from the feather. But I did give her a good hug before she left and thought “off she goes” as I said goodbye. I have yet to see the picture, but I’m pretty sure the third grade oval in her “School Years” frame will be the one where it all changed—bigger teeth, longer bangs, less Polly Flinders, more Justice—but who she is, who she will be, emerging boldly against the generic swirly blue background that will accompany her through the next nine years of school photos—that is unless I pay the extra $16 for the fake beach background (um, no). I will love that face through the awkward years—the head tilts and haircuts and every glitter thread that makes its way into the frame. Times two more kids, that’s a lot of school pictures to look forward to.
That swirly “love” script on her shirt? It will show up in the picture. Someway, somehow, I know it.