Every time my son brings home school picture proofs, I recall a series of "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strips. In the comic, Calvin screams from the breakfast table that he needs Crisco for school.
"Shortening?" his mom says, handing him the tub. "Honestly, Calvin, I wish you'd remember these things the night before. Now hurry up and get ready."
Minutes later Calvin hands the shortening back to his mother, who leaps up, horrified. Her son's hair is slicked back into a hideous, gravity-defying spiral updo.
"Aw c'mon, Mom!" Calvin pleads. "It's class picture day!"
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My 9-year-old hasn't tried Crisco, but his school pictures are priceless nonetheless. With Jack, it's all about the facial expression.
Last year's spring portrait may have set the standard. His expression was something between come-hither and creepy, a crooked half-smile that channeled Dennis Hopper. His hair, an overgrown bowl cut swept to one side by some well-meaning photo assistant, looked dirty and windblown. His jeans were at least three inches too short.
But the best part of the portrait was a bubble-letter word superimposed on the background. Jack's head was positioned precisely in front of the first letter of his name, resulting in a shocking but appropriate "ACK."
Which is exactly what I said when I saw the photo.
My daughter met me outside school that day, both proof packets in her hand.
"This," she said, handing me her portraits, "is what a good child does on Picture Day." Hannah's smile was serene, elegant, her black turtleneck smooth and lint-free.
"And this," she said, offering her brother's proofs, "is Jack."
Indeed it was. Ack.
By now I'm used to it. Jack's first school picture, a photo of his Montessori preschool class, featured my son front and center, his face squinched into a dreadful grimace.
His teacher met me at the door that day. "I'm so sorry," she whispered, handing over the envelope as if conducting a drug deal. "I guess the photographer didn't catch that."
We bought the photos anyway. We always do. I just wrote a check for this year's portraits, in which Jack sports a leather-and-arrowhead necklace he crafted at Cub Scouts. He snuck it to school to accessorize his understated gray sweater.
Like Calvin and Hobbes, I appreciate the truth and beauty of these pictures, which capture Jack's spirit, rough edges and humor.
"Hee hee hee! Look at this one! What an expression!" Hobbes giggles in one comic strip. "Hoo hoo hoo!"
"Yeah," Calvin says. "See how I got my one eye to roll back?"
That's my boy.