Liam Gable’s 2019 school photo is his all-time favourite (not that he has that many to choose from – he’s only 10). The picture features his smiling head – just his head – on a spider-web background. “My head was right in the middle,” Liam says gleefully.
The disembodied head is a bit of a tradition for the fifth-grader. When he was in senior kindergarten, Liam’s school sent home a sombre note to parents about picture day: They’d be using a green screen, it said, so children should avoid wearing green or risk appearing as nothing more than a floating head. Liam’s dad, Blair, explained this to the boy, who insisted they go out and buy him a long-sleeve green shirt.
Mr. Gable, a photographer who lives in Ottawa, sent Liam to school on picture day with a note to avoid any confusion. “We want this to happen,” it said.
Liam has worn green on every photo day since.
The school portrait – a sentimental favourite of parents and grandparents – is an annual ritual many Canadian families will miss out on this fall because of COVID-19 restrictions (though there’s a chance they’ll happen later in the year, if the pandemic is under control). With their forced poses, fake backgrounds and painstakingly curated outfits, they’re a combination of heartwarming sentimentality and delightful cheese – and they almost never turn out as planned.
But parents hold them dear because they mark the passage of time in a predictable way – year after year, perfectly coiffed hairdo after perfectly coiffed hairdo. And, despite being set up to be generic, they inevitably show us who our kids really are. Through one quirk or another – the beaming crowd-pleaser, the vacant-eyed dreamer, the grimacer, the silly-faced joker – they reveal to us their irrepressible selves.
“There is so much change in the world, but the thing that remains the same from generation to generation is the school photo,” says Erin Binns, a Toronto-based realtor, business coach and mom. If you were to look at her mother’s school photographs from the 1960s, they wouldn’t be all that different from Ms. Binns’s from the 1990s (albeit with wildly different hairstyles), or those of her five-year-old son. Jack got his first school photo taken last year, when he was in kindergarten, and Ms. Binns proudly put it up on the fridge and sent copies to grandparents and cousins. “I’m super-sentimental,” she says.
Like most of us in the digital era, she takes plenty of pictures of her child. They all capture him at a particular moment – but what makes school photos special is that they evoke an entire year. When you look back on them, you don’t think, “Here’s that time I sat on a stool with a forced smile on my face in front of a laser-beam background.” You think, “This was me in Grade 7,” and the memories of an entire year come flooding back.
“You remember who your teacher was, what teams you were on, who your friends were,” Ms. Binns says.
That’s part of why these photos have such sentimental power.
Some parents choose to embrace the corniness of the annual ritual, with its inevitable night-before jitters. And as far as Romina Maggi is concerned, the less perfect a school photo, the better. “We always order the most ridiculous one,” says Ms. Maggi, a substitute teacher and mother of three based in Toronto. “You’re not getting a natural pose, but that’s kind of the magic of it. It’s the most stilted, strangest, weirdest smiles and poses I’ve never seen my kids do in any other situation.”
As for Liam Gable, the green-shirt tradition has now been embraced by his little brother, Owen.
“He loves Liam and wants to do everything his brother does,” the boys' father says. There’s a framed photo of both their floating heads in the family’s living room. And though Blair Gable says his mother is never overly thrilled to receive photos of her grandsons' disembodied heads in the mail, he says it’s worth it.
Yes, most of Liam is invisible, but who he is comes shining through, Mr. Gable says. “It’s the mischievous side of him."
Parents, send us your family’s best school portraits – goofy, sentimental, embarrassing or endearing – to help us mark this important ritual that many may miss because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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