“Pay me a hundred dollars and you can take my picture.”
The man’s unruly gray hair spilled out of a cap knitted in rainbow-colored stripes, just as the words spilled from his lips. Everything else about him was entirely forgettable.
I laughed aloud at this notion; my two out-of-town companions stood there speechless, observing the spectacle before us. I held my camera close to protect it from the sprinkles that had come and gone on this pleasantly windy spring day in Vermont, but the telephoto lens was obtrusive and had not escaped the man’s notice.
“She laughs, but let me tell you something.”
Then he started rambling incoherently about his past as a high school physed teacher who embraced an ethos of wellness nobody understood, least of all his female supervisor. One got the impression he had told this story a thousand times before to anybody who allowed him to hold court as he was with us now.
“Women like to think they know everything, but they don’t know anything.”
When that gigantic red flag started flapping in the wind, I turned on my heel to continue down the pathway; my young friends followed.
Who knows the man’s story, how complicated the variables that conspired to make him the miscreant he is now. Still, his sour, misinformed attitude spoke volumes and I couldn’t help thinking cynically, So how’d that work out for you?
What happens when you cleave stubbornly to an old paradigm, when the signals all around are urging you to change? Nothing memorable, to be sure.
More than once I’ve observed street sweepers crawling up and down our neighborhood streets in the pouring rain, defying all logic. It’s probably more trouble to reconfigure the schedule than to stick to it, mentioned a coworker when I brought it up. And anyway, what do I know? Maybe sweeping the streets is effective in any kind of weather as one hopes, since those are after all our tax dollars at work and all that.
At the start of the pandemic a dear friend mentioned the Knox County Schools were struggling to figure out how to deliver breakfasts and lunches to a population of children who rely on them during the academic calendar year. Here in southwest Vermont, at least, it didn’t take too much reshuffling to arrange for food dropoffs via school buses at their scheduled stops, even if our street sweepers aren’t so nimble. Yes, she observed, this seems like a logical response to a crisis.
But here’s a galling little story about how an unwillingness to bend to a new paradigm, or maybe it was just an utter lack of imagination, found its way into a thing as seemingly inconsequential as a middle school yearbook.
Another friend in my erstwhile hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee reported in a social feed last week how her eighth-grader made the difficult but mature decision not to return to in-person school when she might have this academic year, because my friend has suffered for months from Long COVID, but also because her eighth-grade daughter’s granddad is a kidney transplant recipient, and her aunt battles a pair of autoimmune disorders. The family is tightly knit, and the kiddo was concerned about everybody’s health, not least of all her mama’s. She was not alone in her decision, joined by many young peers, but my friend’s post made it abundantly clear the school administrator/s at the public middle school she attends felt inclined to shame these kids as follows.
Whatever their motives, possibly (nay, probably) politics, the admins made sitting for a conventional school photo mandatory for inclusion in the school’s yearbook this year, meaning a candid photo submitted by a student was verboten as a stand-in. The families who elected to continue with virtual learning were given the opportunity to schedule a photo appointment for their child, but as my friend pointed out in her post, these sittings occurred when there were active COVID cases ongoing in the school community. This underscored the need for many families to exercise caution and to forego the school photo. (My friend also explained that the elementary school her younger daughter attends did offer candid photos as an option, to make the point this was not a county-wide but a school-specific decision.)
So instead of seeing a candid photo of herself in the school yearbook last week, my friend’s eighth-grader appears as a gray square with her name printed under it. She was also in honors band this academic year but her name was entirely omitted from the band roster. The girl is justifiably disappointed. The comment thread in the social feed was interesting and revealing, with a voice or two protesting that a volunteer or volunteers create the yearbook, that it couldn’t have been a top-down decision, that subbing in a homemade photo is too difficult for somebody who lacks expertise in creating layouts for a printed publication, and on and on.
Other voices insisted even a likeness of the school mascot would have been more imaginative than a gray square, or maybe a quote the teenager chose to embody who she is at this tender and vulnerable point on the development continuum. Still others cried foul about the ‘difficulty’ piece and one in particular suggested she had managed to exercise lots of creativity in yearbook publishing way back in the day when camera film had to be developed and the type set manually.
Has 2020 taught us nothing about resilience? (A more horrifying question: Are these middle school kids simply pawns for a politically motivated school principal to use to punish families for making an unpopular decision at the height of a pandemic?)
Here is the sentiment I’d like to express to my friend’s eighth-grader down in Knoxville. Unlikely as it may seem at this milestone moment, one day I bet you’ll see your middle school yearbook as substantially less important than it feels now, along with the administrators who made silly decisions and should have known better. Or maybe you’ll pull it out to show to your own eighth-grader one day when you tell stories about what it was like to live through a pandemic, and so it’ll be meaningful in that way. But the adults who made the silly, unimaginative decisions will be utterly, completely forgotten, as forgotten as that ridiculous man in the rainbow hat sitting on the park bench with the great big chip on his shoulder weighing him down, as forgotten as the detritus the street sweepers push along in the gutters during a downpour.
Meanwhile, your imagination will continue to soar, and you will have long done something spectacular and memorable with your own life.
Because that is how resilient people do.