• Ian Rose recently stumbled across an old school photo of his dad (front row, second from right), sparking a new take on his own children's class photos. (Ian Rose)Source: Ian Rose
It's never fun getting the kids groomed and grinning, but school photos still capture childhood innocence like no other medium, and make for bittersweet mementos.
Ian Rose

21 Mar 2017 - 2:40 PM  UPDATED 21 Mar 2017 - 3:11 PM

It’s another one of those mornings. The standard pre-school battle with my recalcitrant six and seven year-old children.

This sees me standing in the kitchen, stuffing mutant sangas and already browning chunks of fruit into obstinately mis-shapen lunchbox compartments, as I yell instructions, over and over again, at escalating pitch and volume, to just please calm down, get dressed, eat breakfast and, for pity’s sake, brush your damn teeth already - instructions that fall on deaf or derisive ears.

I’m finally edging the swine towards the door and into their shoes, when that thing that’s been nagging away at me through the entire rigmarole, that something I know I’m forgetting, hits me like a fishslap to the face.

It’s Wednesday. School photograph day. And look at the state of them.

The way we photograph childhood has changed a lot since mine. Back then, the camera came out on special occasions, family holidays, annual festivities, a trip to the zoo. And those photos that were taken, in reels of 24 or 36, were taken judiciously, then down to the chemist to be printed, kept and occasionally chuckled and sighed over.

It’s Wednesday. School photograph day. And look at the state of them.

These days, I take phone-snaps by the dozen the minute anything mildly amusing or significant seems to be going on, and print scarcely any.

School photographs, though, aren’t that different from when I was a kid. Sure, there’s a broader and more exorbitant array of packages on offer, but your classic set of class shot (small ones at the front, tall ones at the back) and individual portraits (with and without front teeth) is the same as ever.

And just like my mum used to, we’ll get those printed out, maybe opt for the sibling joint-portrait (not just to save money, and only if they’ve both got their eyes open and neither is pulling a face), then, as the collection builds over the years, we’ll need to take care of them, not let grade six end up under the fridge, grade three filed away with old bills.

My mother-in-law sets a good example on this. She kept all of my partner’s class photos, from primary grade three to year 12 in high school, along with the baby stuff, in a special album. Powder-blue cover with floral trim, most likely once tied with a ribbon which has since been destroyed by the cats.

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For a while, when she was three or four and getting fed up with fairy-tales, our daughter used to insist on going through that thing every night. She’d play at picking mummy’s face out from her classmates’, a challenge with hairstyle metamorphoses, from pig-tails to chopped fringe, bubble perm to bob. The combination of full-on adolescent gawk-face and shoulder-length frizz around the late-80s always pulled at my heart-strings.

School photos become bittersweet mementos of time’s relentless procession, from childhood into adulthood, generation into generation.

And there is no way I can let this year’s bittersweet memento, this year’s moment frozen in time, feature the medley of encrusted jam, snot and toothpaste that my son is wearing on the front of his school polo-shirt. As for our daughter’s hair right now - we’re talking haystackgate.

Five minutes of frenzied grooming ensue. By the time I drop them at school, they are presentable (though I give our son about a quarter of an hour before something unpleasant will be smeared across his chin).

School photos become bittersweet mementos of time’s relentless procession, from childhood into adulthood, generation into generation.

Later that day, I ask my daughter how the photo-shoot went, and she assures me it was fine.

“Does the photographer still say sausages to make you smile?” I wonder aloud.

“This one said boobies,” she replies.

And a week later, life slings me the kind of synchronicity that always cheers me up. Social media-surfing in defiance of a deadline, I notice my dad has made a rare Facebook post. It’s his class photo from his primary school in west London. The year is 1948.

In it, he sits in the front row, aged seven, skinny legs crossed, blazer buttoned up, hair parted without mercy. In faded black-and-white, his eyes look into mine, innocent and hopeful, everything before him.

I need to cherish those mornings.

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