Like many of you, I spent a number of years climbing on rickety metal risers with my classmates for the annual class picture. We’d push and shove each other, make rabbit ears behind the head of the kid that nobody liked, and end up with our own awful rictus grin that looked pasted on. It seemed as though our goal was to torture the teacher and the photographer.
Most of you have grown up and long ago left that world behind. I, meanwhile, chose to become a teacher in my late 30s, and there I was again, grinning into the camera, muttering between my still lips to any pupil who dared try to ruin the experience for everyone else.
“Do you really want your mom to see you like that?” I would hiss.
Of course he would. He didn’t care. And yes, it was inevitably a boy.
Spring 2001 was my first kindergarten class picture since 1968. I was much taller, but still looked uncomfortable in my “best” clothes. The twenty little faces surrounding me were also decked out in outfits they otherwise never would have worn to school. Several of the moms hovered around Room 13 that morning, ready and willing to apply spit and forty comb strokes to smooth out the most unruly locks of hair.
I was in a dress shirt that day—short-sleeved—but at least it had a collar and a full set of buttons. Since seventy-five percent of my wardrobe was T-shirts and twenty-four percent was faded polo shirts, it was no small feat for me to be in such a photogenic outfit. This particular shirt spent most of its time in the back of the closet, always waiting to be pulled out but usually forgotten. Until some sort of event came up that required I dress like an adult.
A grownup dinner party. Some sort of church service. Or a kindergarten class picture.
The next year my wardrobe had not increased in size or variety. I didn’t give much thought to what I would wear, because there was still limited choice. When the 2002 class picture arrived I hung it up in the classroom for all of the students to see.
“Mr. Baxter, why are you wearing the same shirt as last year?”
“What?” Sure enough, there I sat in the new picture, in the middle of a different group of students. Same shirt, same jeans, same silly grin. “Well, it’s my only good shirt. Now, how about some math!”
They booed the math and forgot about the picture. I did neither.
It became a tradition for me to keep wearing the same shirt every year. At first no one really cared except me, and I had to bring the unusual situation to others’ attention. As the years passed and the picture collection grew, I continued to sit in the same position, surrounded by new faces. Former students would come by to see the latest addition, dragging along their friends who had never even been in my class. It became the stuff of legend.
Generally the parents thought I was a little odd. They would look askance at me if I dared try to explain my little Dorian Gray experiment. They pitied my wardrobe selection and my lack of fashion creativity. They wondered if they could perhaps pull their child from my classroom, but by that time it was usually too late. Spring had sprung and the end of the school year loomed.
Besides, they had known I was a little odd since the first day of school. This picture business was just one more oddity on the list of oddities.
When I started teaching fifth grade I no longer sat in the front middle. The photographer seemed to think it would look better if I stood to the side, level with the other heads. Which was fine with me, as long as I was in my famous shirt.
Which I was. Every year. Stood right next to the ten- and eleven-year-olds and grinned at the camera, knowing full well that the shirt and I were achieving some sort of lasting fame that would eventually be known only to those who had ample time to waste poring through their old yearbooks and noticing such things as the goofball who showed up on picture day with the same shirt, year after year.
Eventually even a periodic laundering will stress the finest garment. Perhaps it was the fading of the class picture shirt that prompted my exit from full time teaching. One of the buttons slowly loosened, the collar no longer would lie flat, and in the summer of 2008 I tossed the shirt in the trash. That fall, I was no longer a teacher.
You be the judge.