To the girl in my fifth grade class picture who looks astonishingly like myself:
You’re making that face. That impish, goofy, scrunched-up expression lovingly referred to as “the face” by our parents. You’ve made that face your whole life and, while you’ll feel mortified when the picture is mailed home, I am glad today that at least one school picture captures it.
Right before the photographer took the picture, you were bickering with Carlos, about what I’m not sure– probably fighting over a pencil or he was trying to tickle you or something else that happens with elementary school flirtations. In two months, Carlos will send you a handwritten note during math class: “Do you want to go out with me? Check yes or no in the box.” You’ll check “yes” on the yellow lined paper, pass the note back, and then you’ll both kind of freak out for a few weeks since you used to be goofy silly friends and now what on earth are you supposed to do as girlfriend and boyfriend? Carlos will send your mutual friend Nick to tell you, on the playground, the day before Valentine’s day, that he has decided to dump you. You’ll laugh at the irony of it being February 13th, but it’s fifth grade romance and now at least you can go back to being normal friends thank goodness.
When the picture is mailed home, you will see your expression and feel a hotness spread through your face and down your chest. You will feel so embarrassed that the photographer took the picture in the middle of you laughing, in the middle of you playing, and you will see Carlos’s gigantic smile next to you and you’ll remember that he was laughing and playing too, yet he still has a normal looking smile in the picture and you don’t. In a moment of frustration, you’ll take a mechanical pencil and stab his eyes out so instead of bright brown wide eyes, they are just holes you can see through. At least you both look awful, now, you’ll think.
In October 2013, when you hear that Carlos has died, you’ll feel your heart stop for a second. And though no one says it outright, you learn he took his own life, and you’ll wonder what happened, what shifted, what broke inside of him so irreparably. In the onslaught of scanned childhood photos posted to Facebook, a classmate produces the 5th grade class photo. In this version you’ll see Carlos’s eyes for the first time in a long time and in a flash you’ll remember what you did to your own copy. It will feel so petty, recalling your ten-year-old angst. You’ll sink into a small spot of shame, wishing you had not desecrated the photo– though at the time it was anything but sacred. After the funeral, you’ll drive to the family’s home with Mom and in a rare moment of courage share with her your memories of Carlos in fifth grade. She’ll laugh and with tears in her eyes suggest you tell the story to Carlos’s mom. You’ve left out the details about the school picture incident because it feels too shameful in the moment, but your thinking will evolve over the next 18 months. Then you’ll know that it’s okay, and that your copy of the school picture is perfect as it is, stabbed-out-eyes and all.
In fifth grade, you were authentic. Your friendship with Carlos was genuine: pestering and playful. Your self-conscious embarrassment about the class photo was real; your vicious attack on the picture was perhaps misplaced, but in the moment, an honest expression of emotion. You did that in fifth grade– honestly expressed emotions– and I am proud of you. And now it makes for a lovely memory of Carlos. What other memento can capture your friendship so accurately? Today I feel no shame. Today I say to you, it has all worked out the way it has and that class picture is truly one for the books.