Life After School Portraits

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

School pictures are as much a part of early fall as colorful foliage, new shoes, and essays on what I did on my summer vacation. They’ve been such a constant, I’ve never questioned their necessity. As a child, I dressed up, combed my hair, put on my prettiest smile, and two months later received a package crammed with disappointment. No photograph could banish my heavy glasses, change my mud-brown hair blond, or straighten my teeth. Every blemish I discovered in my mirror was magnified in this photo, but I never once thought to ask my parents to forego the annual humiliation.

Now, as a parent, I stare at the packet that came through my mailbox last week, reminding me about “Picture Day”. There is no question that my son must participate; school ID badges are generated from these photos. But this year, I think I’ll decline to mess with the family budget for the benefit of a picture I must pay for before I ever see it. My son hates these photos, and so do I; each year’s picture is worse than the last as his objections to the assembly-line of cursory primping and then posing in an unnatural position come through loud and clear in his official portrait.

Let me be perfectly honest: I love my son unconditionally, and there is nothing I wouldn’t do if I thought it would benefit him; school photos do not fall into that category. The inference from both the school and the photographer that owns the lucrative contract is that I must purchase something. And, had the order form been presented in a more tolerable format, I might have sucked it up once again, thinking that this is the done thing. Of course, we all purchase school portraits, and then send them to every relative, both close and distant. I’m not quite sure what the point is, perhaps to show that you’re not beating or starving your kid, and that you did manage to complete his orthodontia, but the fact remains that the majority of these pictures either remain buried deep inside a file cabinet, or are sent to relatives who never see my son.

The habit is so strong that I automatically began filling out the order form the other day, referencing the spreadsheet I’ve developed over the years of who gets which size pictures, and how many packages of pictures I will need. But as I put pen to paper, I realized that the order form is not acceptable, and the photographer’s demands are outrageous. You see, these order forms are printed on the outside of payment envelopes. On it, I am supposed to give my child’s personal data, plus my credit card numbers, including expiration date, and the three-digit security code. If I’d rather write a check, I must include all sorts of personal information, including my date of birth.

Who is this photographer kidding? In these days of rampant identity theft, I do not write personal information on the outside of any envelope, nor do I give out my credit card number so that someone rifling through a stack of envelopes can access it. And knowing my date of birth will not make my check more or less likely to bounce; this merchant has the opportunity of cashing my check and making sure it clears before printing my order.

These are my knee-jerk reactions to this year’s order form. At a deeper level, though, I wonder if I am going against some powerful cultural norm that will come back to haunt me. Am I being a less-than perfect mother, depriving my offspring of his opportunity to swap photos with his friends?

Actually, while I have some nebulous concerns, and maybe even regrets about not having the complete set of school photos to show to some future generation, I think I can easily live with them. Last year’s photos were so appallingly bad that they remain stashed in a file drawer. For last year’s low, low price of $39.50, I have pictures of every conceivable size that represent the ultimate waste of money, as I would never have sent them to anyone, for any reason. For just slightly more than the cost of one year’s picture package, I have purchased an idiot-proof digital camera that can produce photographs at least as good as, if not better than, what I’ve come to expect from the annual school portrait. Once I’ve picked out the best ones, I need print out only those I require on my home printer or at the local WalMart.

When I think of the many hundreds of dollars I’ve spent over the years on school pictures, I see red. I cannot believe the blinders I’ve been wearing, treating this quasi-official annual rite as though it were as much a part of schooling as learning Algebra or U.S. History. So, this year, in this less-than-sterling economy, I’ll spring for the new clothes, shoes and backpack that my son absolutely needs, but I’m taking a pass on paying for the official photograph that is supposed to show them off.