They peered into the lens – and the future
The old school photo is 130 years old, but many things haven't changed a bit.
The sunlight in the old photo looks as it does today on a spring or early autumn afternoon. The facade of the white clapboard school shines, and the shadows cling to the posed figures, the shade line close to where we would see it now, more than 130 years later.
There is even a familiar casualness and relaxed demeanor to this group of teachers and students gathered in Castine, Maine, for the Adams School photo circa 1875.
The two boys in the third-floor window project a surprisingly jaunty posture, although it must have been a little harrowing perching way up there. Perhaps they were assigned the task of ringing the bell in the cupola, the same bell that we still ring on the first and last days of school.
And that shadowy man in the stovepipe hat! Who was he? The principal? How stiff and dour!
As all-school photo day comes around again, version 2007, I am looking at a gilt-framed photograph that hangs in the front hall of the Adams School, of which I'm the current principal. I like to imagine that it was taken on photo day, and that the Adams corps has been herded to the front steps – and windows and doors – to stand still, smile, and peer into the camera ... and the future. They seem somewhat less practiced at taking part in group photos. It must have been a rare occasion. Little did they know they were gazing at us.
Today, the wide-brimmed felt hats on the boys and the stovepipe hats on the men would be replaced by baseball caps. We don't see many dresses and petticoats, vests, long suit coats, and ties during school hours either. Fashion changes.
Yet today's students and teachers probably have much in common with those in 1875. We live on their land, in their houses, and attend their school as the heirs and stewards of this place. Too bad we weren't able to see them in their Halloween costumes!
I wonder: What were the hot-button town issues of the day – parking downtown, as it is now? Or perhaps horse manure? The price of fuel? No, that was the era of schooners and Maine-built downeasters. Who did they vote for: Ulysses Grant in 1872, Rutherford Hayes in 1876? I wonder if any of the adults in the old photo actually heard Lincoln's voice at Gettysburg. Certainly, they were all present at the dedication of the Civil War monument on the common just across from the school.
It's tempting to want to peer beyond the frame of the old photo, to see the neighboring houses, the schoolyard, or the interior of the old building that feels so familiar to us. Adams School has been in continuous operation since 1854.
Old photos convey a rich sense of place, of a certain consciousness of one's sense of self, and of one's relationship to the immediate group, to time, and, most important, to community.
But we tend to forget the future community at whom we gaze in the casual immediacy of our present sense of "frame." Actually, history is our frame, and it's interesting to peer around its edges.
Tomorrow we will herd the current group of teachers and students onto the same steps. In some latter-day Castine, the future town will inspect us, our shade, our nonchalance, our coats and ties and hats. (However, they won't see boys in the attic window!)
"Who were they?" they'll wonder, looking at 54 students and their teachers way back in 2007. "What were they like?" they'll ask as they review the old yearbooks or wonder at the old town reports and a school and town budget that seems a pittance by their contemporary standards.
What was that young boy in the front row thinking as he mugged for the camera? And what was the girl in the second row whispering to her neighbor? Why is that kid holding a giant zucchini? In photos of the whole student body, there is always a shy girl; a brash boy; a distracting, errant curl; an untimely gust; a nudge; a comment just too good to wait. "Smile! Cheese!" Click. Frame it.
Those residents of the future will live on our land, in our houses, and attend our school as the heirs and stewards of this place and this sunlight. Too bad they won't be able to see us in our Halloween costumes – nor we see theirs.
Things change – and nothing changes. The light will, presumably, feel familiar. And, I hope, the same bell will ring in the cupola – that same bell that rang in 1875.