China adoption diary: School picture day, nostalgia, and a paper clip barrette

School picture day is an American childhood rite of passage, memorializing the awkward growth spurts, braces, and in the case of Madeleine, an experimental approach to hair accessories.

Courtesy of the Belsie family
Adventurous fashionista Madeleine plays with a blonde wig – an item we can only assume she was not allowed to bring to School Picture Day.

During the month of October, our home calendar was marked in red with a special notation: School Picture Day. This semiannual rite dredged up clear memories of my own elementary school days and the importance attached to those humble photos.

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For years, our school system used only one photographer: an independent agent named Harry MacWilliams. He was a Carl Reiner type with a booming voice, a loud plaid sport coat and a 15-cent pocket-comb that he passed down the line of children waiting their turn in front of the camera. In those days, no one gave a thought to skin allergies or head lice. About as far as we got was a mention of cooties followed by hushed snickering.

The all-class photo featured “thumbnails” of deer-in-the-headlights faces that were sometimes accented with mashed or horned hairdos. If a classmate happened to miss the picture day, a small caricature filled his thumbnail space with the corny caption “Gone Fishin'." 

By today’s standards, school picture day in the 1960’s was rudimentary at best.

Our daughters’ photographic needs are handled by a slick company that offers photo montages, modest air-brushing upon request, jaunty poses and a variety of interesting photo backdrops.

Eleven-year-old Grace has always opted for the subdued mottled gray background because it shows her specially chosen outfit off to greater advantage. For those with a more adventurous bent, the company offers a sylvan glade setting (for parents who fancy their child as a wood sprite,) a modest cliff along what appears to be the craggy Maine coastline, and improbably, an old abandoned fishing shack. Last year, without our ordering it, we received wallet-sized photos with the sylvan glade backdrop. Grace sent one to her grandmother with the added note “It was awfully buggy here.”

Our collective attention this year was focused on how to prepare younger sister Madeleine for this distinctly American rite. A concerned family member sent dresses from L.L. Bean, hoping that these would divert Madeleine’s attention from the pink capri pants she wants to wear every day. Grace and I conferred, strategized and then laid out several clothing options on the bed for Madeleine to choose from. Much to our surprise, she selected a hand-me-down from Grace that was actually the fanciest of them all. It was an unexpected victory that was regrettably short-lived as Madeleine began to create new and unusual hairdos the night before school picture day.

She decided to take the hair from the back right-hand side of her head and wrap it across her forehead in a bold comb-over statement. This involved any number of bobby pins and/or barrettes. By breakfast the next morning, things had calmed down a bit with the hair, and as I sent them off on the bus, I quietly kept my fingers crossed for a successful school picture session.

After all, the cheapest package you can buy now is $30. Multiplied times two children, twice a year (our school does them in fall and spring), you’re looking at a pricey investment in sentimentality.

Throughout the day, I found myself wondering about the photo session. Would Madeleine, whose English comprehension is still quite limited, understand when the assistants asked her to pose a certain way or tried to style her dry and spiky little ponytail? Would she smile or stare at the camera with the stern face we call “The Old Emperor”?

At 3:10, when the school bus pulled up at the intersection in front of our house, I was eager to hear Grace’s report on the events of the day. I never got a chance. The only thing I could focus on was the paper clip that Madeleine was wearing as a barrette.

Twenty years from now, that paper-clipped second-grader will no doubt be featured in a special Power Point presentation we put together for Madeleine’s wedding reception. We’ll think back to those elementary school days and know the $30 was well spent, and the photo is indeed priceless.  

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs.

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