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The Evolution of School Photos

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?”

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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.”

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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.


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  1. what is it with 5th grade school pictures?! your reminiscing reminded me of my own… and oh man it was BAD!

  2. That was beautifully written, then again, everything you write is! Love your personality and I love that you are letting her be herself. You sound like an awesome Mom! ☺️

  3. So cute those girls so cute:)

  4. Becky Pulley says:

    so love this post and she looks beautiful as always. It reminded me of the year they were doing profiles and my son told me at the last minute – too late for a hair cut – so he had me trim just one side of his hair. I would have never gone off to school like that – but kids will be kids.

  5. Delightful writing!

  6. STacey Helmers says:

    Justice used to make me cringe and I was initially happy when my girls outgrew their Justice love. But now that my youngest is in 9th grade and my oldest a freshman in college I kind of miss those Justice days…..

  7. Jenny rebeCca says:

    Polly Flinders!!

  8. No one your age knows Polly Flinders but bless your soul for knowing! My sister-in-law just tried to give her daughter a stack of long saved Polly Flinders for her baby girl, arriving next week. Daughter, not so much a Polly Flinders girl, but I believe she agreed to one or two.

    And good for you, letting her chose her style for picture day. That’s going to come back to you a million times as she gets older. My boys were allowed to pick their hairstyles and any (reasonable, I drew the line at gauging) piercings when they were young and then teenagers. I was trying to avoid crazy stuff, and allowing them the smaller things has produced two tattoo-less (as far as I know) and amazing young men. Not that I would have a problem with a tattoo or two, just wanted them to have some choices when they were younger that kept them from going all out when they turned 18.

    Keep up the great work, Momma!

    • I’m 35 and my mother and her friends had a bit of a Polly Flinders fetish when I and my friends were younger. Every year we had a few new dresses that would have looked right at home on Little House on the Prairie.

      Just this summer my daughter looked at my daughters (6 and 4) sighed and said “too bad Polly Flinders isn’t around anymore”.

  9. This is amazing and made me cry. My mother, who I love, has struggled with addiction and self-esteem her entire life. When I was younger, things were especially bad. Because of this, she had a tendency to take things out on me at times. Not in an insanely abusive way (again, I LOVE my mother), but with subtle criticisms. Especially if she was in an altered state due to substance, which was…pretty often. School pictures metastasized this issue more than anything else. I never wanted to look how my mother wanted me to look, I think because my mother had always felt powerless to look to herself the way she wanted to be. Not necessarily physically, but you know what I mean. She projected her inability to change onto me.

    I still remember the year she dressed me in a purple sun dress with a matching floppy hat with huge purple flowers on it. Poofy bangs that I always insisted on mashing down as soon as she was done curling them. The picture is horrible. I’m slouching and smiling my most unconvincing smile. But that’s how I felt in that dress and that hat with those bangs. I’d do the same thing now if I were wearing such an outfit.

    When she saw the picture, I knew she was mortified. She made some comment on how the photographer should have told me to sit up. (Probably valid.) Her comments quickly got the attention of my brothers, who also started explaining why the way I had behaved for this picture was all wrong. From about that point into the next decide, I was chronically embarrassed about how I looked. Wondering why I couldn’t fit the mold of other’s expectations.

    Well, now I understand I couldn’t meet them because they just weren’t me! It was physically impossible for me to fit that mold, and I’m happy about it. That’s what makes me who I am, and proud to be it. My relationship with my mom has grown a lot since. We’ve come to understand and appreciate each other much better. But I just wanted to say go you! Go you for grasping the concept that your gorgeous kids are their own individual creatures. Go you for supporting that from the get-go. I have no doubt about the difference it will make to them.

  10. ….we homeschool AND have that 12 year photo frame- we just put in a head shot from the year (my kids’ pics are better than my old school photos- you get more than one try to get a good shot until the chaos that is school pictures)

  11. Rest assured that the Justice stage can be very short lived. Jaedyn was into it for 2 years. Now she’s in the 6th grade, taller than me, and shopping at the same stores I do. What in the EFFFFFF?

  12. Justice? My daughter is only 6, so I guess this store doesn’t carry her size just yet- from the name, it seems that it is a free-trade, union-made company? Cool!

  13. Heather Kulaga says:

    Good job Kelle! I thought about not ordering school pix one year because…4 x the cheapest package was still a lot of money for something that wasn’t likely to “turn out” but then I fell in love with school pictures. A rite of passage – the good ones (how in the world?), the ones when they had recess right before, the ones where they handed out the black plastic comb in line and my kid apparently used it to thwack somebody, and finally, the “extra” photo half-way through the year taken with props, full body poses, the works…that I didn’t catch the memo about. They’re my favorite photos – James in his W.O.W. wrestling shirt, hair sticking straight up in the back, Beth in a pair of overalls with dirty tennis shoes smiling coyly…I would so love to know what those photographers were thinking about these kids’ parents. My favorites. My real kids :) Love it.

  14. I love everything about this post! (including the Love shirt) I can relate in every single way, including horrendous ’80s school photos. (I had beaver teeth and a curled mullet — a Dorothy Hamil-cut-gone-very-wrong) As a mom, I too, fear the Justice. We’re not there just yet, but the day will come. My girl’s 1st grade school pic was yesterday … there were tears, tension over what she wanted to wear vs. what I chose, a hair debacle, a front tooth that wouldn’t come out (she wanted it OUT for the pic), and much teeth gnashing from both sides. In the end, I (figuratively) said, f*%$ it. She proudly showed up at drop off wearing various shades of leopard, glitter and rhinestones from our dress-up trunk — what I believe is meant to be a shirt but was worn as a nice minidress with leopard biker shorts. Tall boots. A dangling top tooth. A headful of untouched, wayward “beach waves.” Thank you for reminding me that I will treasure that photo and remember the day when I let go a little. She was so proud of her style.

  15. I love your writing! You captured the awkward photo year perfectly. I think my shift was evident in the 6th grade photos that had to be retaken since they were sooooo goofy. I’m glad my mom kept those proofs of my terrible first shot at school photo independence.

  16. Oh gosh, I’m not a fan of Justice. Thankfully, most of my girls have outgrown that store. But I still have a seven year old girl who just loves it. I think the clothes are really, really marked up in price. And then they have HUGE signs out front and on the windows saying that ENTIRE STORE 40% OFF — Woo-Hoo!! And then I see a simple white t-shirt regular price $39.99 and marked down to $15.00 — Oh! the savings!!! We’ll take five of them! Gag. It was never worth the $39.99 anyway, and even $15.00 for a plain white t-shirt is a bit much. So yeah, not a fan of Justice. But I will buy there occasionally because, you know, they are only seven once!

  17. Mine was too! Braces, striped body suit, bun with long, crooked bangs! I thought I was so cool! hahaha

  18. Tina Aurora says:

    ON.THE.FLOOR.laughing from this one. The part where you didn’t realize the gift was being given the day before picture day….priceless. I could feel you and that moment you had, wondering if there was any chance of a do-over. We have avoided that store as well…they make it so damn hard! My 5th grader (she reminds me so much of Lainey) got her first t-shirt there this summer. It was a cute Paris/London tank with a double bow in the back and rhinestones. I refused to pay full price for it, and when it went on sale, they were all gone. Except for1 last one that was buried in the over-crowded sale rack in the back of the store. It was an emotional roller coaster of ‘Oh nooo’ to ‘YES!!!!’ We have recently left with some jean shorts and a beautiful elephant t-shirt. We’re easing our way in…

  19. loved this blog post Kelle! I agree bored mothers love to judge, you seem to be an easy target because of your honesty and positivity.
    This post is great and lainey looked adorable. She’s grown up so much since I first started reading!

  20. My dad bought me my first outfit from Limited Too (I believe that was the precursor to Justice). Flared, acid washed jeans, a lime green turtleneck and clogs. (This was sometime around 1997, maybe?) I remember how excited I was when I saw that box. Thanks for reminding me! :)

  21. That one made me cry!! I love the independence that she was able to show and how you let her! Mom lesson for sure!

  22. Oh, that dang Justice… it ruins everything! LOL! It’s a tough transition when your daughters (I have four) go from letting your pick out everything and dress them the way YOU like them to look to them now wanting to emulate their peer group. Part of me is disappointed, and part of me is proud that they are finding their own style and expressing themselves. No longer little clones of me, they are becoming who they are… or at least experimenting. It’s bittersweet, and you captured that perfectly in this post. LOVE it!! :) And, by the way, Justice or not, she looks absolutely adorable… so much like you!

  23. Oh my god. This post is EVERYTHING! I’m 26 so my Justice was Limited Too and bless my mother’s heart for letting me ever set foot in that sparkly hell. She still set limits and I like to think I dressed pretty reasonably throughout my awkward years, but I will never again cringe when I see my outfit choices from 5th-9th grade. Instead I will think of Lainey and how EXCITED she was to wear something she may or may not hate in a few years, and how damn thrilled I must have been also, to pick out my outfit and do my own hair.

    As always Kelle, you nailed it.

  24. When Kelle is my #momgoal every damn time. I saw our email correspondences from over a year ago recently and it made me smile. Your direct impact on parenting for me is grand! And Juniper is a sassy two year old now who inevitably will stop letting me dress her for picture day all too soon.

  25. My youngest daughter (of three daughters ages 27, 29, 31) just got married and as she and her sisters stood for pictures I marveled at how unique they each are – in personality and style. The bride in my mother’s wedding dress from 1955, with her colorful tattoos and up-do hair has always embraced her own style, early on taking charge of the wardrobe choices. They went to Catholic school though so picture days were in uniforms. They began public school when the youngest was in 4th grade and that’s when their styles really began to blossom! What fun to see them now and how their personalities are reflected in the way they dress and do their hair and wear makeup or not. I tried to let them express themselves as they grew and matured and last Mother’s Day my youngest posted a picture of herself as a little girl on Instagram with a message thanking me for always encouraging them to be independent and true to themselves. Hard as it was at times, it has paid off a thousand fold as I see the grown women they’ve become.

    Keep up the good work, momma Kelle, your rewards will be infinite!

  26. Great post! I really enjoyed it.

  27. Oh I laughed at this! I’ve never commented before, but this just goes to show that kids are the same – doesn’t matter where in the world you are… We live in Namibia, Africa – and I also have a 3rd grader ( if the grades are the same.. He’s nine) Liam insisted that we get his hair cut in a “English cut” like the high school boys wear it for their school photos – he’s in a private school so they wear uniforms (luckily he has no say in that , otherwise he would have probably blinged up in trainers and sports apparel …! ) Ps – have been reading your blog for a couple of years and love it! xx

  28. I always had my girls pick out what they wanted to wear for picture day since it will capture what they liked at that point in time. We also did Xmas pictures with my stepmom who picked them out coordinated outfits.

  29. Just wanted to say… One of the best posts you’ve written. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  30. love this post, and of course love the pictures but why not post your school pictures next to Laineys??? You don’t have to put up your third grade pic!

  31. I was trying to think, justice justice justice.. And then AHA! I think if I’m not mistaken they changed the name. I’m in my mid 20s, but back in the day ‘Limited Too’ was THE place to shop. I thought it was much cooler than my Catholic School girl classmates who upgraded to Abercrombie and Fitch before I hopped on that ban wagon. I still remember these lime green jeans with silver sparkles I wore on free dress day with a shirt with a kitty cat on it. My friend still reminds me and will never let me live that one down. I remember getting so excited every time my mom brought me into that store… Oh those were the days!

  32. I had LONG braids in the first and second grades. Mom left my hair braided at night and then re-braided it in the morning with ribbons to match each outfit. Out came the tangles and out came the crying and it was a scene every day.
    Third grade? Took me to the beauty salon and snip snip……goodbye braids! I’m not sure if that new haircut had a name, but let me just say my teacher was horrified when she saw me. Me? I was ecstatic.
    I believe they call it a pixie cut now, but back then it was very nearly as short as my brothers’. My mom kept my braids in a velvet lined box and I still have them all these years later….in addition to the shocking school pics!

  33. These stories and photos took me back to a place that was long ago, if I count by years. As a mom, though, it is as real as yesterday. I have no little ones running around my house, and when they were, I secretly thanked the Lord for two sons. I had escaped the hairstyle wars, the strange makeup confrontations, the bizarre nail polish questions; or so I thought! Wrong! I had always encouraged self-expression, uniqueness, be “you-ness.” One day, my oldest son came to me with a box of hair dye, bright red hair color, and asked me to help him color his hair. And so it began…the evolution of my boys through ‘being themselves.” Little did I know that my son would proudly wear his new coiff to school, dive into the pool for swim team practice, and come home in “only mom can see them” tears because his hair had turned pink from the chlorine. I remember mustering up a smile as, through his tears, he came up with a solution. “I will go blonde, Mom. No more red, or pink!” And so started a string of hair styling, mother-son bonding moments, amid tubes of styling gel, blow dryers, and a rainbow of hair colors. We worked on life together, from girls to grades, sports to stagecraft, and it was wonderful! I always wondered why it seemed so natural to tell my hairdresser everything about my life, as though she were my therapist. Perhaps it was the unloading of baggage in exchange for a new and improved me. It made sense, somehow…and I would not trade my Mother/Hairstylist days for the world!

  34. I don’t know how I missed this when you first posted! My daughter is a high schooler now. The big 10th grade. The year I knew would change our lives forever – a driver. Free to go and do as she pleases. She’s a tee shirt and hoodie with jeans each and every day kind of girl now. Darks, solids, and blands. But there was a day, back in 2nd-4th grade where JUSTICE ruled her wardrobe. Everything glittered and sparkled. Thank you for that reminder of those days past.

  35. I just love this post. Thank you.

  36. She is certainly changing….very cute..both girls! The fun is yet to come in the form of hormones…get ready!

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