There was a time when school photos made sense. My grandparents and great-grandparents were seldom photographed except at school or at their weddings. They did not live in a culture where parents watched every school play through the back of a smartphone. And they certainly didn't turn their cameras on themselves to commemorate every soccer practice, every plate of scrambled eggs, every outfit change. In a pre-selfie world, the school photo was a necessary document to commemorate the passage of a year. Now it's just an expensive addition to the junk drawer.
At last count, I have nearly a zillion photos of my kids. There are so many that I seldom go to the trouble of printing one out and putting it in a frame. My favorites feature my kids looking like kids: outside, laughing, and a little dirty. When Future Me gets around to printing out the best of these photos and putting them into carefully assembled photo albums, I'm pretty sure the annual school photo won't make the cut.
Every time I look at my School Days photo frame, the one with with thirteen openings to house all the school pictures I will collect over the years, I feel kind of depressed. And not just because of the dwindling empty spaces that show me how many years I have left, like an X'ed-off calendar on a prisoner's wall. The depressing part is the photos themselves, my kids against an artificial background looking like they're under duress. If I wanted a collection of thirteen photos of my kids smiling nervously at a stranger, I'd just wait for the mug shots to roll in.
With your first child, you get sort of excited about his being professionally photographed. When the order form comes home, you pick the A package that costs $54, the one that includes the 8x10 and six 3x5s and enough wallet-sized photos for all of your friends. (Because, really, who doesn't want to stuff her wallet full of photos of other people's kids?) You may even spring for the retouching, the personalization on the back, and the refrigerator magnet so the photo is guaranteed to end up in multiple rooms.
Smartly, the photo company asks you to commit to this purchase before you actually see the photo. Your kids are so cute, how could they take a bad photo? The picture day photos of my children are actually the worst photos that they take all year. Sit on this stool, lean a little forward, tilt your head up toward the ceiling while keeping your eyes on me, says the stranger who just combed your hair in a direction it's never gone before... Say cheese! They often end up with an expression that suggests they've either smelled cheese or have recently been punched in the kidneys.
I wised up by the time my second child was in school. I ordered the Z package, which is maybe $15. It comes with one individual photo for us to laugh about and also the class photo. I have to admit I love the class photo. It feels like a historical document. I keep them in case one of my sons ends up marrying the girl in the third row, or in case the kid making the funny face ever runs for president.
One year, when my third child was in pre-school, I brought him to class on picture day, and the teacher gasped when she saw him in his customary Yankee t-shirt and basketball shorts. "Oh no!" she cried. "I forgot to remind you it was picture day!" I knew darn well it was picture day, and I thought he looked pretty good. I wasn't about to add a starchy collar and a necktie to the awkwardness of the event.
I didn't spring for the refrigerator magnet that year either.