It was picture retake day at Riley’s middle school last week, and I was there as the sole volunteer. It was just me and the sweet-natured photographer, who had the unenviable task of not only bringing in and setting up all the bulky equipment, but also posing and photographing each kid, a seemingly endless process which involved finding their information in a computer, dealing with the fact that they invariably did not have the required order form, and taking multiple photos if the flash caused glare on their glasses/they grimaced/they blinked/they took off their hair band but left it looped around their wrist, etc etc etc.

I have to say, this was a very thorough photographer. She really cared how the pictures turned out and her attention to perfection never waned, which was, frankly, both impressive and slightly baffling as the hours went on.

This all would have been manageable with a group of, say, seven kids. But there were SO MANY OF THEM. At least 50 middle schoolers who all needed a redo of the original picture day, either because they had been absent or their parents called bullshit on their refusal to smile — or, as was the case with several heavily-styled girls, they just didn’t like how the first photo had turned out.

The school inexplicably sent all these kids to the gym at once, which was of course a total fucking disaster. I did my best to corral them into a line and leverage my Mom Voice to the worst offenders but what group at this age could possibly be expected to stand there quietly for that long? Entropy quickly descended: somebody had found a roll of bright yellow caution tape on their way to school that morning and pieces were being handed around and tossed wildly in the air. By the time I called for backup the scene was nearing Lord of the Flies status, complete with DO NOT CROSS tribal headbands.

The sense of growing chaos was worsened by a teacher who showed up and was so visibly impatient with the fact that each kid was taking at least 3-5 minutes she was twitching from head to toe with each flash of the bulb. “Well, it is what it is,” I offered weakly with a shrug, in an attempt to help her find her inner zen, and the white-hot burn of her return gaze — like, are you fucking KIDDING me? — reached all the way to the backs of my eyesockets.

Eventually the vast majority of the kids were returned to their classrooms in favor of a system of calling them back in small alphabetical groups and I was left with the much more pleasant job of simply chatting with the remaining kids as they waited in line.

I guess I always thought this age seemed a bit impenetrable, roiling with condescension and rebellion, but every kid I talked with was pretty delightful in their own way. Some were silly, some were gentle, some were clearly a major handful, some were deeply and interestingly weird.

One boy was so tall and strongly-built I couldn’t believe he wasn’t an undercover millennial. I assumed that due to his popular-jock vibe he wouldn’t bother engaging with me, but he was friendly and polite. After boggling at his height for a while, I finally asked him something I was dying to know: “Dude, do you eat, like, INSANE amounts of food?”

“Oh man,” he said, grinning. “After dinner I pretty much just keep eating for about two hours.”

(I knew it. We are never going to be able to retire because groceries.)

The photo process was still well underway when I had to leave — in fact, they’d only reached “A through D” on last names, and I can’t quite imagine how things finally came to any sort of conclusion. Was it midnight, the photographer hollow-eyed and soaking with sweat but dogged in her refusal to compromise on quality? Did that stressed-out teacher finally dig a Xanax out of a long-forgotten purse pocket or was she carried out via stretcher? Is there still, right now, a line of kids shifting from foot to foot and building incremental resentment towards their mothers who just wanted a decent school picture this year for crying out loud?

But mostly I have been marveling at my own misperceptions, and how this age — while obviously tricky and mercurial for all sorts of reasons — is actually pretty damn great.

Although I have to say, they’re best taken in small doses. That pretty much rings true for humans of every age, though.


20 Responses to “Lifetouch”

  1. Kendra on October 29th, 2018 11:35 am

    I kept waiting for the part where you rocked the CAUTION! tape headband because you’re just that cool but this was a highly enjoyable blog reading break mid-afternoon for me on the East Coast, so thanks, as usual, girl.

  2. Carrie on October 29th, 2018 11:46 am

    Helping, once again, with my fear of raising a tween/teenage boy! Thank you!!

  3. PETE J HAIDINYAK on October 29th, 2018 11:47 am

    I would have been that kid with the caution tape.

  4. Erin on October 29th, 2018 12:07 pm

    Excellent read. Highly amused.

  5. Jessamyn on October 29th, 2018 12:11 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote this – it sums up pretty well why I wanted to teach middle school. It also sums up pretty well why my first year teaching middle school is so freaking frustrating and exhausting. I love just about all of them individually, with all of their weird quirks and goofy senses of humor and need to both be unconditionally loved and also to reject you repeatedly in large or small ways. The best days are the days I get a lot of moments with a lot of individuals, and the hardest days are the ones where I don’t.

  6. Jennie on October 29th, 2018 12:17 pm

    I thought the same thing when we had a few middle and high school kids come to our fall festival to volunteer. They were hard-working and funny and present and they didn’t look at their phones once, though can’t say the same for many of the adult volunteers. Our future feels in much hands than any hands its currently in, YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.

  7. Emily on October 29th, 2018 12:25 pm

    I so missed your writing. This made me laugh out loud.

  8. Cara on October 29th, 2018 12:52 pm

    So glad you’re blogging again!

  9. Mandy on October 29th, 2018 12:54 pm

    I’ve been surprised by how much I have enjoyed my son as a teenager, mainly because my expectations were so low and I feel bad about that. At 14 he is sweet and funny, and still so delightful to be around. But yes, I only have the one to deal with!

  10. Pictou on October 29th, 2018 4:20 pm

    Nice to see you again. I enjoy your tales of the boys and family trips. I’m long past having kids at home but I appreciate your stories.

  11. Alison on October 29th, 2018 5:43 pm

    I love reading your impressions of middle school kids. It is very heartening. I find kids above my oldest’s grade (first) to be weirdly intimidating. Maybe because I didn’t exactly excel on the social scene in my younger years. But I volunteered to man a very interactive booth at the school’s Halloween carnival this past weekend and I was surprised how easy and pleasant it was. Even with the tweens who were trying to game the booth. They were really amused and good natured about being called on it. Interacting with the parents—still hopelessly awkward! But the kids are alright :)

  12. LD's Mom on October 29th, 2018 5:57 pm

    And Linda nails capturing a life experience that we can all identify with once again. Love it! And what a treat to check in and see TWO new posts. Highlight of my day:)

  13. Peg on October 29th, 2018 6:34 pm

    Welcome back! Love your blog.

  14. Shawna on October 29th, 2018 6:53 pm

    You give me a bit of hope because my daughter started middle school this year and there are just so many nasty, mean kids! For example, one of her friends’ parents had to get involved because there was a boy another friend was dating who messaged this poor girl and called her a “pizza-faced c*nt”, but he didn’t asterisk it. And he is abusive to many of her friends (though to a lesser degree), but she still likes him! And my daughter cannot understand how anyone could like an a-hole who treats his girlfriend’s friends like that!

    Anyway, all this is to say the drama, it is thick this year. Thank goodness my daughter is a pretty grounded kid!

  15. Cindy on October 30th, 2018 5:01 am

    I always love your posts. You described the scene so perfectly!

  16. Mary Clare on October 30th, 2018 12:40 pm

    Loved this vignette. I’m amazed that there are school photographers that care…Hopefully one will be at my kids’ class photos sessions. We’ve had some amusing class photos.

  17. Donna on October 30th, 2018 6:29 pm

    My boyfriend, ( yes 61 year olds have boyfriends AND he’s 7 years younger, so cougaring ) photographs the sports teams all year round. You know the kid taking a knee and holding the soccer ball kind of photos and omg I’d be choking some of the parents. The kids are ok. Except the little ones that cry. I can’t imagine that being anyone’s only job tho, just shoot me.
    You done good Linda. Although whacko teacher? She’s wrapped too tight.

  18. Jen on November 1st, 2018 10:22 am

    I have missed your writing greatly. Thank you!!

  19. Lisa on November 1st, 2018 3:43 pm

    Wow…I have a new middle schooler (6th grade) and this sums it all up in such a beautiful, amusing and kind of melancholy way. So happy to be able to read you again!

  20. Sally on November 5th, 2018 9:16 am

    A lovely piece of writing.

    The tall boy reminded me of my son who reached 6’8″ at 14/15 and seemed to do nothing other than sleep and eat for a considerable time. He is still a very expensive person to keep alive!

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