Past, future in a snapshot

August 28, 2006|By Jon M. Andes

The black-and-white elementary class photographs are cracked and faded. In the early 1960s, before wide use of color film and individual school pictures, school photographs were posed and taken by class. On picture day, each class of children would assemble for the photographer. Each child would be given the opportunity to purchase a single class picture.

On picture day, our parents did their best to make sure that our clothes were clean and we looked good. For many of us, it was the only yearly picture that would be taken. Since the picture would be shared with relatives and friends and the entire community would see it, as we left home for school our parents would carefully inspect our clothes and strongly remind us to stay clean and manicured until after the class picture was taken.

Our hair was brushed, combed, and wetted down to stay in place. We wore our best school clothes. The hand-me-down clothes were washed and pressed. The girls wore dresses and jumpers and the boys wore slacks; all wore their best shoes. The shoes were polished but showed years of wear by older brothers and sisters. Some soles of shoes had holes plugged by cardboard inserts.

All of the photographs were posed using the same order. The groups of children in the photographs were arranged in rows. The first row shows the shorter boys sitting on the ground cross-legged. The second row is girls seated in chairs, and the last row is of tall boys standing. The boys who created the most challenges stand next to the teacher. A boy in the center of the first row holds a sign that lists in block letters the grade of the children, the school's name and the name of the teacher.

At the far right end of the third row our teacher stands. She wears a dress, her hair is pulled back, and the glasses have a traditional look. She gives directions in clear and concise words, and 25 children comply. As the photographer readies the camera on the tripod, our teacher reminds the girls to sit like ladies, the boys to sit up tall and keep their hands to themselves, and all of us to smile. The picture is taken, and the teacher leads the children back to the classroom to continue our studies of math, reading, spelling, science, social studies and handwriting.

The photograph captures a group of children with concerns, fears, worries, hopes and dreams. It shows children who faced a rapidly changing world of nuclear-inspired duck-and-tuck classroom safety drills, rockets propelling astronauts into space, and parents trying to provide a home and pay the bills.

As I stare at the picture, I focus on my teacher. My mind returns to the early 1960s. Our teachers were smart and dedicated, women capable of succeeding in many different careers, but their choices were restricted by social norms and cultural expectations: nurse, secretary or teacher.

The names of our teachers will never appear in history books. Monuments will not be built to them. They will never walk the red carpet or be featured in national magazines, and their names will not appear in print. At a time when America was dealing with the unprecedented baby boom explosion in school population, they chose to become teachers. Their legacy will be the lives they touched and the generations of children they molded. We are indebted to the women who entered the classrooms across America and forever touched our lives. As the images in the black-and-white class photograph fades, the memories of our teachers will endure.

Today, the black-and-white class picture has given way to the digital color photograph with a high pixel count and individual pictures with a variety of backgrounds and package choices. Parents can select a different background, and unwanted blemishes can be eliminated by the computer. Modern photography reflects our new age technology.

The black-and-white class photograph has been replaced, but the teacher is the constant from generation to generation. As we begin a new school year, we remember the names of the teachers who made a difference in our lives. We reflect on the power of teaching and the impact of teachers. The success of our children lies with the talents of our teachers.

Our challenge is to make sure that we recruit the most talented people to enter the classroom, give them the tools to teach and support them. During this school year, the images of our children will be captured in a class photograph, and their dreams will be molded by a teacher. The teacher in the class photograph will determine their future - and ours.

Jon M. Andes is superintendent of schools for Worcester County. His e-mail is

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