This week the ladies had class portraits taken at school — not individual portraits, which are taken at the beginning of the year, but a picture of the entire class with the teacher, and which are infinitely cooler than the ones taken when we were kids because a) they’re digital (meaning most of the kids can be caught unblinking in at least one frame) and b) they come pre-printed with every child’s name, so now you can forever Google-stalk the kindergarten harridan who pulled your hair or the three-foot troglodyte who daily stuffed your favorite pencils up his boogery nostrils. Progress!
The girls love having photos taken and I wouldn’t have otherwise given such a pro forma event a second thought were it not for the small fact that last year, my eldest photobombed her kindergarten class portrait.
It was about a month later that the photo came home in her folder, and (after unbuckling myself from laughter and emerging from my room) I sat down with her, pointed to her small, beneficent face and Buddha-mudra pose and calmly asked, “WHAT are you DOING HERE, exactly?” (Whilst casually flapping my index finger all over the photo in a totally non-accusatory manner, silent jab-jabs of “Because it’s not like this portrait is forever or anything. Seriously, YOU CAN TELL ME.”)
And then she smiled and said, “Oh, I waited until the photographer looked away. He made everyone sit exactly the same, and I didn’t want to.”
“But there’s a reason photographers ask us to do that for group portraits, baby: it’s so the picture looks uniform, so the viewer focuses not on one person but on the entire image and is then moved to examine each individual face.” (Honestly, teaching of Classical and Modern Aesthetics at the kindergarten level is the worst. It’s a grave threat to our children, but don’t hold your breath for “Dateline: To Catch a Philistine.”)
And that’s when she schooled me.
“But I didn’t want to look the same, Mama. I wanted to be different, and special.”
We want our children to fit in: to be healthy, intelligent, attractive, well dressed, sociable. Kindergarten, especially, is where we cede our long-held ground, where we let go of the tender baby’s hand and release our child into crushing maw of the school system, and where we know from hard-won wisdom that succeeding socially often equals conforming, assimilating. Sitting, as the photographer insists, in perfect uniformity.
But she’s never wanted that for herself. She’s always been the loudest person in a room, quick to elbow into a position of leadership, and committed to a personal style that can truly only be described as “All of the Prints, All at Once.” I would have chosen differently for her, because it is an infinitely easier path. But she is the child she is — loud, brash, outrageously confident — and nourishing that child (the one happier standing out) has allowed her to not merely fit in, but to thrive: she has friends throughout the lower and upper schools, is well-liked by her teachers and administrators, and is academically gifted.
Sometimes, she forces me to realize, being the best parent is allowing your child to choose the harder path… be that simply of being boisterous and imperious, or perhaps later to enter life in a religious order, or to accept his or her transsexuality. To deny them that — the realization of their full being — under the pretext of sheltering them is to give lie to our own cowardice, to cower in the face of their guileless courage.
So before this year’s class portraits, I gathered both girls and made my instructions crystalline: “Be different, be special, be most of all yourself. Because this photo is forever.”