Like Sunday school and Friday night football games, Picture Days are rituals in the South. I went to a lot of different schools in different cities and towns, and had to memorize new customs, traditions, mascots, and slogans at each one, but the anchors that made the experience of school cohesive were the days we did the duck-walk to school in uncreased penny loafers to spend 30 seconds in front of a camera and get envelopes full of our faces three weeks later.
Picture Days are theater and pageantry, one of the small ways we established order in our own chaotic lives. We all got dressed to the nines—to the tens if they exist—all patent leather and starched slacks and vests and fresh haircuts and pomade. Also, a little Blue Magic and white stockings for the girls. Mamas kissed us on the forehead and doted on us even as they hissed, “Don’t you ruin them clothes before you get your picture taken!” My warnings from my mama were more precise: It took 20 years for my face to realize the difference between a grimace and a smile, and my glasses have never been clean.
We behaved on Picture Day—only the worst monsters among us would ever disobey direct orders from our mamas—and did our little duck walks in little duckling lines to the photographer’s room. We sat in the hallway in advance, and students eagerly awaited the final accoutrement that made Picture Day whole. Our teacher gave us each one small, cheap black comb--the most spartan of designs. The final directions were simple. Each of us went to the bathroom mirror to “fix ourselves,” and use the comb to make sure our hair was just right for the photo. Mama’s orders.