You Just Never Know

I’m sorry I dropped the ball and I haven’t been on here in awhile. I moved, got a full-time job (had a kid, lost a kid . . . ) etc. Life’s been a full-time job with overtime here for awhile, but I wanted to share an observation I had at work the other day.

I got this insane job as a school portrait photographer for Lifetouch. The job is crazy. We weren’t trained well enough. We aren’t paid well enough. Crazy hours. Just basically insanity. But fun. Mostly.

So the deal is that a couple of us get up at four am and drive several hours to a school where we scramble around trying to set up the 500lbs of equipment in not very much time and then we spend about twenty seconds with each kid at that school trying to capture some expression that is somewhat genuine but mostly cheerful. We don’t know these kids usually (though it is Vermont: population 502) and we don’t have enough time to get to know them. My strategy so far?: act aggressively cheerful myself, make some joke about teachers or schools or jumping jacks or Captain Underpants, depending on the age of the student I’m photographing. Just anything to get them to laugh and at the moment they do, I click.

This technique works marvelously for about 65% of the kids I try it on. (About twenty percent of elementary schoolers just look really solemn or confused or freaked out.) But I had a moment that gave me pause a couple days ago. I had one kid–maybe sixth grade?– come up to the camera. He got upset that I made him take his hat off (school policy, not mine) then I tried to joke with him. He scowled at me, shook his head, picked up his hat, and left before I could say another word.

Now this could have been funny–I’m a nerd, what can I say? Except that that student looked really unhappy. Really really unhappy. I keep this blog. I write for kids. I work with kids. How could I forget that a significant proportion of the kids that I take pictures of every day must be really unhappy. I’m taking pictures of kids who are being hurt, neglected, tossed from place to place. I have no idea what that kid was going through. I have no idea if he comes from a happy home and just got up on the wrong side of the bed or if his parents just got a divorce or if his uncle comes home and kicks his pet dog when he’s drunk.

And that’s the point of this meandering post. You just never know. I had teachers in high school who I really believe loved and cared for me, but they never had a clue that I had anything wrong going on at home–at least I fervently believe that because I choose not to believe that they might have known but done nothing. These kinds of scars don’t really show on the outside. Maybe in a way the cutters and the drinkers and the anorexics and the sex addicts and the druggies are just the tiniest bit smarter or luckier (and I don’t mean that really so please don’t shoot me)–but they’ve got a big old sign hanging over their heads saying: “Shit sucks. Help me.”

Me? I graduated from one of the finest undergraduate institutions in the country with a BA in Physics. I have an MFA on top of that. I get by. People are impressed by me sometimes. Almost no one ever thinks that there is or ever has been anything wrong with me. But the truth is, I’m a mess. And I go to work every day and I smile all day long at kids and my cheeks hurt by the end of the day from laughing so much and my feet hurt from dancing and my throat hurts from chatting and nobody knows. That’s all. No body knows that anything is going on. But there’s a lot. And my coworkers–they’ve got no clue, either, even though they work with me every day. And sure, maybe I get a little pissy, but they just think that’s how I am. And maybe I am. But they have no idea that there’s anything going on in my life.

And that’s what it’s like every time we work with a child. Whether the child gets pissed and walks away from our cameras, or is sweet as can be and accommodating, or  you name it. There are no dues for the heartbroken club. We don’t got no shiny buttons or t-shirts. And even if you’re a member yourself, you will probably never know who else is in the club because we don’t hang out.

If you work with kids or for kids, just assume that a significant proportion of the them are walking skeletons. And assume that you will never know for sure which. Then plan accordingly. That’s my really depressing thought for the day. Sorry.


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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5 Responses to You Just Never Know

  1. Sapphire says:

    Wow, I commend you. Not many people have the patience or energy to go that extra mile for kids during picture day, especially those in middle school. I remember one portrait where I look like a really sad puppy in kindergarten. hahaha! My 1st grader will be having picture day next week and I’m excited about it. Looking back at my family albums, it’s still the best way to see how much someone has grown and changed throughout the years.

    Back to your topic, I was thinking the other day about how each part of our lives we allow certain people access. I know I don’t act the same way around everyone. No one truly understands what’s going on with me. But whether it’s a broken heart or something else, filling my life with a different kind of joy and focus really helps.

    Best wishes and good luck to you! -Eve

  2. Esther says:

    Thanks Pam, for the thoughtful post. Good to read what you’ve been up to lately and what thoughts it prompted. Nope… ya never know. I have a question- What do you mean by “walking skeletons”? As in, raw to the bone, no cushions whatsoever? I’m not sure what connection you see a “walking skeleton” having with being unhappy. For me skeletons are a neutral thing to refer to… either I’m missing a reference or I just don’t see skeletons as having a connection to pain, outside of torture and crime scenes!

  3. pamwatts says:

    Hey Esther, glad to see you! Umm, I’m not sure what I meant by skeletons. Just raw without any meat protecting them I think.

  4. abwestrick says:

    Pam – I didn’t get a chance to read this post until today, and as usual — I am blown away by your honestly and insights. I have a sense that everyone carries some baggage, but children who have been abused carry oh, so much more than the rest of us. Sometimes it hurts to read your posts–they are painful to read!–but I appreciate the reminders that the world is full of survivors. Full of “the walking wounded.” You’re so right — you never know.

  5. pamwatts says:

    Sorry it’s painful to read, Anne! I’m not trying to rip anyone’s heart out. But it is sad. It makes me very sad.

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