I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel
— The Cure
The biggest obstacle to finally packing for my move to a new school rested in a group of boxes that I had stuck off in a corner of my “Katrina” portable classroom. In them lay nearly two thousand photos of my early years as a teacher at my school, stacked, boxed, and in some cases (thanks to my dad) placed into albums. Some of these photos reflected my earliest years as my school’s yearbook adviser for our student staff members. As yearbook adviser was now a capacity now deemed anachronistic by the powers that be, I nevertheless saw myself as a caretaker of those photographs and of those memories. These were photos of my classroom, but also of the school, and while I was in a few of the photos, the majority of the photographs represented a significant slice of daily life not just in my classroom, but in the school at large.
Once upon a time, it had been a idea to scan these photos to create a digital archive from the time before so much of our technology went digital and we stopped snapping pictures with film. What was amazing was that while inside the three plastic tubs filled with photos represented the first 6 years of my time at my current school site, in my backpack, I still carried around the small portable hard drive we began to employ in my final 2 years as yearbook adviser–on which could found the other 6 years of photographs I had had my yearbook staff compile, before that duty was abolished and the idea of a student-published yearbook came to its abrupt end. Given the portability of the drive, an old colleague and I came up with the idea a couple of years ago to scan all the old photos in my tubs, along with the old boxes of class photos and old yearbooks kept under our school stage by a school librarian, who had been at our school site going on 40 years. Sadly, when the student yearbook was kiboshed, even the idea of digitizing our photo archive was also quashed, deemed unnecessary by those in charge for reasons left unsaid to us, leaving us to conclude only that a school in Program Improvement with the state of California apparently no longer had time for historical enrichment.
In a week which saw Ray Bradbury pass away, I felt not unlike one of the exiles immortalized in Fahrenheit 451, in that those pictures represented something about this school’s past that was much bigger than I was, but I at least wanted to maintain that legacy in case anyone wanted to ever search for them at a later point. While I could take them with me to my new school site, I knew they belonged in a place where these photos had been taken. They really needed to stay here. After talking to one of my close colleagues, she suggested that I should and needed to go to our school librarian and ask her if she’d take them. We knew that there was no other place that they belonged.
Finally, last Thursday morning, I wandered into the school library. Along one of the walls was the large 6th grade class photos taken over the past 20 or so years. I had kept a similar wall of my individual classes on my own wall. Given the size of the tubs I had, I was worried that she might not have the room, or, worse, might not even want them. Fortunately, she immediately welcomed the idea of taking the photos. Still, she asked why I was coming to her instead of going to the office first After explaining what I felt would be the prevailing attitude should I bother to ask, I also told her that I knew that she would likely outlast whoever was in charge anyway, and that since she, the librarian, was really the one who kept the school’s legacy alive, these photos would inevitably add some more fuel to the flame she was keeping.
In many ways, I felt like those photos in those tubs. For a long time I had been charged with documenting the school’s activities and then, first with myself and a colleague, and then teaching a new yearbook staff of students each year how to do it themselves. While the photos in the tub had been taken by me, a nearly equal number had been shot by students as young as 3rd grade. I believed then, and still do now, that no one is too young to start becoming a historian. Despite what others on the campus might have thought, this was never about me claiming something that wasn’t mine. I was an accidental keeper of this flame, that had been maintained by the several dozen kids who, over the years, had fanned out over the school grounds to just see what was up. But the photos had been left unseen for a long time now, collecting dust first in my parent’s garage, and then in my classroom closet, and now in a seldom-used corner of my current classroom. When our librarian told me she’d take them, I knew now that we were going to be tripping down memory lane.
Part of the problem was that in packing these photos, they had been mixed together with some personal memories of my own. Nothing embarrassing, save for some old photographs of my ex-girlfriend at various social events. (My dad apparently thought it would be funny to pack them away for me.) And there were just random personal photographs, some dating back to the mid-1980s, when I used them for our Circle K Club newsletter when I had been at Cal State Long Beach, some from various Dodger Camera Days, vacations to Bodie’s ghost town, or, finally, trips to the Rose Bowl to watch Cal-ucla football games. More often than not, they had been mixed together and needed to be removed before I donated the majority of the photographs to the library. (Or, in the case of my ex, just thrown out…)
Returning to my room, I found H. and J. Had I been the yearbook adviser, these two girls would likely be have been staff members, if not editors. In fact, J.’s older sister had been one of my assistant editors during my yearbook’s final edition in 2009, and would have become my editor-in-chief had our efforts been continued for another year. Both girls were extremely efficient and responsible. I gave my two charges their marching orders to clean up and minimize the contents of 3 boxes, and then sent them forward, drafting several of their classmates to help them.
For a day and a half, my classroom became a time machine as the kids worked through the boxes of photos. Here they could see their brothers and sisters, or cousins, or their old teachers, or just odd stuff from over the years. Because I had to have them work quickly to get these boxes clear, my main focus for the kids was to simply look for personal photos of mine and consolidate all of the rest. As I began to get other kids to begin to pack the rest of the classroom, they would periodically come to me with a question about a photo–obviously they were intrigued by what was going on…
Was this our school’s old Spirit Squad uniforms?
Why was this principal “mad” at our school’s mascot?
Why was that principal driving a bulldozer?
Is that my cousin? My sister? My neighbor?
What field trip was that?
Who were these kids in several group photos?
Surprisingly, the answer to that final question above was actually answered in person a few hours later. As events played out, last Friday was our school’s annual Community Read Aloud on campus. Individuals from the community are invited to come read to our students. This year, having the opportunity to work on the program myself, I took the liberty of inviting several of my former students back to their old elementary school to read, ostensibly because all of them (with one exception, a former student who was now in Grad school) were now freshman in college, both locally and back east.
These students were from a time in my teaching career when I was still feeling my way as an educator (and with the oldest of the group, a young woman in graduate school program in Psychology, as well as a graduate of one of the top high school’s in California, I shake my head that, despite me, she turned out well…). But every single one of these kids were those who represented what passed for “royalty” amongst the staff who were here when these young people were still at our elementary school. They are still talked about highly, and even my wife once referred to a group of them, while they were kids of mine, as those whom my wife would allow our own daughter to play with.
And now they were back. When my soon-to-be ex-principal entered the room to greet the readers, with my group of former students amongst the group, they, (along with my fellow event co-chair and our school’s librarian, as well as myself), had spent more time at my school than she had. This group knew how this school used to be, they knew what had been in those boxes currently being sorted by my students–because they had helped either take the photos or were in them. This was a legacy. This was a walking part of my school’s history, my own personal stitch in the school’s ongoing fabric.
So when the group of former students entered my classroom to say “hello” once last time before they left, the air leaving the room among my current group of students made a palpable sound. Just like that, those photos that had been lying on the floor of my classroom as they had been sorted out, literally stood up, took on life, and walked right back in my door. And almost immediately, upon my prompting, these now grown children flocked around my photo wall to take another look at their former selves amongst the 14 other class photos that were up there. The day ended, the students dismissed, and they were all still there. We talked for an hour after school, as packing suddenly didn’t seem like a priority at that moment.
In the end, they could see that their former teachers, what was left of the group who had been at the school at that time, were still there, albeit older. They could marvel at how much our school’s custodian had not aged. (Hint: Think Dorian Gray…) And they could also ask the pained questions about so many of the things that once marked their time at this school now gone, or dismantled, or little resembling those things that they would have remembered from their time here.
Surrounded by the group of them, I almost wished we could have toasted something, as what they knew as this school during their time was effectively over. Here I was ready to walk out the door as well. Soon, like them, I’ll only have the memories to keep with me, particularly since, the following Monday morning, the photos were gone from my classroom too.
Ev’ry time I see your face,
It reminds me of the places we used to go.
But all I got is a photograph
And I realise you’re not coming back anymore…
— Ringo Starr