The picture shows a young man with a terrible haircut. He’s wearing a yellow Aquaman T-shirt and holding a yellow mug that might also sport Aquaman, although it’s too small to be sure. He’s in front of a metal door that isn’t obviously a school, but he remembers that it was school. Maybe because my mom wrote the info on the back of the picture. Maybe it’s just because I remember it was the first day of school and can place the picture. All this to say, back to school pictures aren’t new.
As with anything on any social media platform, though, they have taken on a life of their own. Kids pose with teachers; they hold signs announcing their grade and age. Perhaps the parent kicks it up a notch and hires a cheer squad and makes a big banner for the kids to burst through. Everyone laughs and mocks the parents for their perfectly staged photo of the little ones beginning a new school year.
For years I’ve been among those mocking them. I mocked them as recently as 2016, when I claimed I was calling child protective services on everyone who hadn’t taken a picture of their kid with a chalkboard.
This year, though, I had an epiphany. Maybe it’s my contrarian nature and the fact that the subject of so much reflexive derision makes me wonder about piling on. Maybe it’s that I love my kids and don’t see the harm in the occasional staged photo even if I prefer action shots. Maybe it’s that I realized none of us are going to get all these different photos printed out and write the dates on the back as our moms did and the paper signs will provide some context for the future when the kids are going through the family Facebook photo albums.
Crossing the River Sharpie
In other words, I crossed over. I forgot to buy a chalkboard and instead improvised with some copy paper and a Sharpie. I made three signs—Pre-k, 2nd Grade, and 4th Grade—handed them to the corresponding children and went into the front yard for group and individual photos. Then I posted them on Instagram and Facebook, to many accolades. One friend texted, the words dripping with sarcasm, “I can tell you put a lot of work into those.” Another said, “You’re such a dad. Write it on duct tape next year.”
To be honest, I enjoyed it. How jaded are we if our collective impulse is to respond to attempts at capturing memories with genuine scorn and derision as opposed to friendly jokes? I say that as a cynical Gen Xer. Something has gone wrong in the world that y’all are making me say, “Hold up one sec so I can sing ‘Accentuate the Positive.’”
Especially since those photos aren’t for us. They’re for our kids. They’re so that in 10, 20, 30 years those little ones can look back and remember those first days of school, the terrible outfits and haircuts we agreed to. The reticence, the happiness, the excitement, the pain of having heard an alarm clock for the first time in months.
Facebook and Instagram may be terrible, as people often claim. But Facebook and Instagram can never be as terrible as claimed, because they’re not the comments sections of various websites. (Those are what is truly killing civilization.)
The other thing about Facebook and Instagram is that they serve as digital repositories. Every time we take a picture of our kids and upload it using a phone that we’ll fail to transfer all the files from, we add insurance. Every time a hard drive death spirals beyond any fixes we could attain on our budgets, we know our kids will still have access to those memories. Yes, we can save our cherished memories on other cloud-based services. But, see, with those we won’t get any likes.
Do our kids normally walk around holding chalkboards with pertinent information on them? No, they normally walk around looking for things to destroy. Should we fail to curb that impulse, they may someday take photos while holding another sort of sign and waiting to make their one phone call.
Social Media Isn’t Real Life, But Can Remind Us of It
All we parents know this. We know that most of what we see on social media isn’t real life, except I post the blood and destruction because it amuses me. Also, other parents need to know they’re not alone.
But also people need to see that even though we’re cynical Gen Xers or highly curated millennials, it’s cool that we love our kids and want to capture milestones in their lives, to share those with friends and family. We aren’t still angry teens, for Pete’s sake. We can grow into adults and do adult things, such as being excited about our kids.
So, lighten up, get out that chalkboard or duct tape, and make a sign. Capture a memory. Share it with friends. In this time of unrest and uncivil discourse, small reminders of our shared humanity and the possibility on display in those smiling little faces may be the best thing we have going.