Get your feet wet

Because it’s only forever

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.

schoolpic copy

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.”


  • Amanda

    March 18, 2013 at 8:59 am

    She is truly amazing – and years from now, these kids will look at this picture & realize how Eliot, at age five, was truly enlightened.

    • Tracy

      March 18, 2013 at 11:43 am

      You know, some of my most important moments as a parent are when she and I argue — and I taught her to stand up for herself, so argue we do — and I realize that she’s right and I’m wrong. And it’s very liberating to apologize to her (something no adult ever did when I was a small child, certainly never my parents), to let her know that even the littlest person can prevail, and the most certain grownup can get things wrong, and that apologies (honestly made, and truly accepted) are our errors’ balm.

      It’s often in those moments that I tell her what a wonderful kid she is, and to thank her for coming into my life and teaching me to be a Mama, and for continuing to teach me every day, because she’s actually quite ace at it.

      • cardiogirl

        March 19, 2013 at 3:14 am

        Amen on apologizing to your kid (this is in response to your response to Amanda. I’m jumping all over this thread before I leave my comment.

        I grew up the way you did — no one ever apologized to me, I had to apologize for breathing, it seemed. So I actually make it a point to say to my kids (when the situation calls for it,) “Hey gingah, I’m sorry. You were right and I was wrong.”

        And the best part is that I have done this enough that they say the same back to me, when that’s the case. Mutual respect man, there’s a crazy parenting concept, eh?

        • Tracy

          March 19, 2013 at 5:38 pm

          Right? I think so many of us are doing precisely what my friend Rudy says: “In one valiant effort, trying to correct generations of horrific parenting…”

  • cardiogirl

    March 19, 2013 at 3:18 am

    Favorite line of this post:

    Honestly, teaching of Classical and Modern Aesthetics at the kindergarten level is the worst.

    I think she needs to be praised on her ability to conform (sitting the way the photo wanted her to and smiling on command) with a small twist.

    I also like the teacher’s dress.

    • Tracy

      March 19, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      She’s savvy: she excels at pushing limits without crossing lines. She gets away with a lot by stretching rules without breaking them, or calling the rules themselves into question. Michael and I call her “The Little Politician.”

      That’s the sublimely named Ms. Smart, who I only later discovered was THE sought-after kindergarten teacher for her perfect mesh of strong academics and gentle, preschool-to-real-school TLC, and who’s also my little one’s teacher this year. I’ve been a weekly classroom volunteer since day one, and I’ve learned more about discipline from watching her over the past two years than from STACKS of parenting books. Things like: when kids get loud, don’t get shouty — get really, really quiet… Or when they upset you, don’t get angry: make it clear that they’ve deeply disappointed you. Really excellent longtime teachers are like ZEN MASTERS.


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