Friday, September 15, 2006

The Great Scam

I don't know why I give in. It's probably because of women who have those compilation pictures (and you know who you are) where they've arranged their child's school pictures chronologically in a two-yard frame, kindergarten through high school--showing the lovely progression of the years like one of those animation flip charts you get in Cracker Jacks. Something about taking the time to put that together, taking out a loan for the custom framing job, and then actually displaying your child's school pictures turns on those guilt juices and makes me think "There are priceless memories somewhere around here that I'm supposed to be preserving . . . somewhere . . . "

And oh yes, they are priceless.

Every year I know it's coming but it's not until the kids slip you that treacherous flyer that I feel the panic really set in. School pictures are this week! Run for your lives! Having had the Perfect Mother (that's not sarcasm, that's pure intimidation) and knowing that she always had our school pictures taken (all six of us) to challenge the Establishment by not participating in this Great American Tradition is akin to declaring open warfare on all that is decent, good and holy. What kind of mother wouldn't want a picture of her child? What kind of mother wouldn't jump at the chance to capture a snip of the all-too-brief childhood and lovingly preserve it at any cost?

But I seem to be the only one shouting "Scam!" on this one. What a sweet system those Lifetouch people are running: Spend one day at a school, run 750 kids through like cattle with a teenage photographer earning minimum wage who's got less experience with a camera than my middle-schooler and charge an average of $20 a head--or rather a head and shoulders--and you do the math, they're making more than most African nations.

And all for a picture I'd rather not release to the public. Oh, in kindergarten and first grade they're awfully cute because they haven't got an ounce of self-consciousness but by second, third, fourth grade they know they're supposed to smile and the effort kills everything. I've got pictures with their lips draw so stiffly across their teeth that you'd think they were enduring electroshock when the flash went off--or maybe rigor mortis, I'm not sure.

Then there's the hair. It doesn't matter how hard you sweat it out the morning of, by the time that shutter closes it looks as if they rode to school on a Harley (without a helmet of course). David came home last year from picture day and reported proudly that it had started to rain while they were at recess and he'd been able to get every wet, carefully gelled hair on his head to stand on end before they were brought inside. The results suggested I'd cut his hair with a weed whacker. Oh sure, I could have opted for retakes but that's like trying for a Hole in One. If you didn't hit it the first time, your odds haven't really improved for the second shot.

So with this in mind and with the flyer in hand I scanned through the package options. The cheapest-two-picture-combo (two pictures!) was $15, multiplied by three children meant $45. That's a dinner at South Side Bistro or a Barnes & Noble night or a new pair of jeans or four books at Powells or--most likely--new snow pants for the boys. When I crunched the numbers it was hard to justify the expenditure but $45 doesn't just buy six ugly pictures of your children it buys the Good Motherhood Seal of Approval. The knowledge that, ugly or not, you're preserving memories and that someday you'll want to see those pictures when you're old and childless and going to bed by eight. So I sucked it up and grabbed the checkbook and jumped on board. Who knows, maybe this year I'll get lucky.

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