The Lost Art of Not Taking Pictures

"You didn't have a preschool graduation?" Wally said earlier this week, with a bit of envy, but mostly surprise. Envy because he's been anxious and upset all week about all the changes going on in his life. At home he is suddenly a big brother. At school he is suddenly a "big kid". He doesn't want to talk about moving up to kindergarten every day in class. He's still in preschool where he gets to play in the play kitchen and build towers out of blocks. That's not all they do, not by a long shot. They do worksheets and learn about photosynthesis and they hardly ever have recess even though they're in school 5 hours a day 5 days a week. And they've been preparing for kindergarten since the day they arrived back from ChristmaKwanzakah.

They've been told teachers won't help them with things like opening a snack or tying their shoes or getting their coat on. They've been told they can't bring toys to school or it will be taken away until June. Told there will be no time for play in kindergarten. I'm not sure how much of this will be true for Wally's specific school, although from the kindergarten tours I took it's clear there is a lot more studying and a lot less playing. Our kindergarten was only a half day and most of it was spent at water tables, sand tables, coloring or outside. Kindergarten was, as my parents reminded me recently, to prepare you for elementary school. That was the transition period. Now Kindergarten is about ...I am not making this up, this is what the principal said at the school tour and only I laughed..."college readiness".

No I didn't have a preschool graduation and didn't, as far as I know, attend anything that resembled todays preschools. If I had, I don't know if there would be any pictures of it -- there aren't any from our 6th grade graduation party. I did as a toddler occasionally go to a nursery school/day care drop off...maybe a few hours a week? Just another radical change in one generation. There are so many. So many! Kids playing outside most of their free time to now watching TV, on the computer or in scheduled, supervised activities. Meeting outside to play vs. playdates. Kids playing with each other while parents did whatever -- cook dinner, drink wine vs. parents attending every play date and soccer class. Lead-filled enamel vs. BPA-phthalates, PVC, lead, and nitrosamines free plastic. The fact that now we take pictures of everything - of a sand castle, of a sidewalk chalk drawing, of a child playing with his train table. I do it too. I video tape Wally dancing and singing around the house. Instead of just dancing and singing with him. Those are just a few of the changes. Here's one that really drives me nuts:

At the preschool graduation yesterday which was held in an auditorium at NYU (NYU!!!!) there were probably about 500 people or so in attendance. And we started off sitting in the chairs like normal people do. But parents started standing up to video their kids. At first it was just along the side that they stood up, and then a few rogue parents stood up right where they were and then a gathering started in the middle aisle that went straight across. We were sitting behind this line of parents standing -- so from our seats we could not see the stage at all. Alex's mother I felt the worst for...I had the baby so I knew I might be in and out and miss stuff...but poor Sueli schlepped in on a bus and a train from the furthest outer reaches of Queens and she could not see a thing. For the first time in my life I was thrilled that she did the pushy Brazilian thing and shoved her way in front of the parents with the flip phones, cameras and even ipads. Can you imagine - standing up and holding up an entire ipad just right there smack wherever you happen to be in the middle of the auditorium with no concern for the people behind you? 

The kids danced and sang and they all received medals as their names were called out one by one. I was glad they agreed to call out "Wally Federman" even though since January they've been calling him William at school and asking him to sign his name that way because that's what he'll be called in Kindergarten (is that true?). We've always called him Wally as a reference to his middle name Waldemar. (The fear with Waldemar as the first name was it sounds too much in pronunciation like the evil guy from Harry Potter.) 

From what I could tell it was a nice ceremony. During a slideshow the teachers had a live band going with drums and a ukulele even. They played Bruno Mars "Count on Me" . The music teacher Elizabeth has a fabulous voice and made it sound a lot better and more soulful than the original. But I really wish the school had been more forceful about making people stay in their seats. (Full disclosure - Alex did stand up and go to the side aisle to video tape Wally's song.)

I really feel like some old crotchety grandparent talking about how things were better in my day. Not everything was - but people did stay seated in their seats when they were watching a performance. If you're going to make such a big deal of it, rent a hall at NYU, dress up, practice for weeks...then at least take it seriously once everybody takes off from work or a grandmother takes the Q37 bus from South Ozone Park or an exhausted mom drags an infant in the rain to be there. How does someone's right to post a video of their child performance on Facebook trump another parent's right to even see their child performing live? It's nuts. I don't know how much each factor weighed yesterday in creating the crazy amalgam that led to this situation -- our technology obsession, our need to document everything for the future, the desire to broadcast to our social network, the craziness of an hour-long performance with four and five-year olds to begin with...

I'm glad we kept it as low key as we could. I pictured other families going out to fancy restaurants to celebrate. In truth, I don't know where they went. I ran into one woman earlier in the week holding bags from Trader Joe's saying this was "part of" the graduation dinner for her four-year old. After as we turned left on MacDougal Alex said. 

"There's pizza place right down there. Remember we used to go there after gigs."  I thought he was pointing to La Lanterna di Vittorio.

"Too expensive," I said. I had loved that place back in the days when I was always in Manhattan but lived in Brooklyn but didn't associate it with the band.

"Too expensive? It's like a Rays or something." It was - he meant the place on the southwest corner of West 3rd, past Lanterna. 

He had to head back to work so Sueli grabbed slices for the three of us. It was only at the end as I was throwing away the paper plates that I noticed the two little round tables in the open doorways. They're the kind that are tall with no chairs where you stand up. "Oh yes, yes, that's right." My mind flashed back to crystal clear to one 3 am morning eating pizza standing up there. I think we'd played at Piano's over on the East Side but somehow wandered over there by that time. No, maybe it was Kenny's Castaways. But yes, definitely pizza at 3 am. Wolfing down slices like it was the most normal thing in the world, just a quick pit stop in between the endless bar hop -- were we still dragging our instruments around with us at that point or had we left them in Joe's car trusting them to fate? I don't remember. No pictures from that night. 

"He's right - he's right," I said as I came back to the table.

"Huh?" Sueli said. Wally was fiddling around with a blowpop someone had given him. 

"Alex is right --", I gestured behind me, "those tables..." then turned to gaze at them myself, to take in the spectral images of myself with Alex, Joe and Lauren and whoever else had stayed with us that long, "Those tables just reminded me we did come here," I turned back. Sueli was telling Wally to get his umbrella off the floor. He was dawdling, singing one of the graduation songs. They were not interested. Even 2006 was a lifetime ago.

It was a relief for Wally to have graduation over. Some of it was the anxiety about performing but some of it was all the buildup and talk about saying goodbye and talk about next year and talk about being a big brother, all of it was too much. And maybe the too muchness of it helped him process some of the feelings about this transition, saying goodbye to his friends and his teachers, gave him a place to put it. A place documented by those over-zealous parents blocking our view. Back home he played quietly turning a cardboard box into a house for his doll called Baby Arrow. He set up a little meal for Baby Arrow to eat. Orange juice and raviolis. 

"I used to love doing that," I told him. 

"What?" he said, looking up, calmer than I'd seen him in days.

"Setting up little meals like that for my dolls. Mimi used to help me set up tea parties for them."

"Can I do that?" he sounded so happy.


"Do you have a picture?" he turned back to his doll, tying on a bib.

"Of what?" I said, distracted. I was making up his bed then, something I get to by late afternoon, if at all.

"Of the tea parties - your dolls, that you set up with Mimi."

"Oh," I said, laughing a little. Then pausing. Quiet for a minute, as I looked down at his eager face. "No, I don't think so. I would never have thought to take one." To myself I thought how I don't think I have any pictures of my room even, that I know of, except one or two of the cat sleeping on the bed. That change is digital photography. Even 10 years ago we would never have taken multiple photos of all the quotidian things we do now. The technology changed our habits, but then our ideas about what needs to be memorialized changed too. A lot more needs to be saved now, first because it could be, but now because we feel that it needs to be saved. Our need to save it, to show it to others, to have it to keep, is more important than our need to feel it, to experience it. Slowly, incrementally, not every time and not in every way that's different now from 30 years ago, but cumulatively by degrees we're forgetting to save something essential. We're bearing out the prophecies in Neal Postman's seminal book, The Disappearance of ChildhoodWe're viewing our children through lenses, holding physical barriers between us and them at their ceremonies of transition, and maybe later too, at the times when they need us acutely to sit down on the floor with them and understand that this is all a little bit too much. That they still want to be called Wally. That at five, even on their way to Kindergarten, even though a few months from now they'll be learning core skills for college readiness, today on this rainy Thursday afternoon they want to sit on their bedroom floor and spoon-feed invisible raviolis to their dolls. 


  1. Wow! That's intense. Eric's preschool graduation was upstairs in the social hall, at his school. Just the parents and teachers. they sang 2 songs, then hit a pinata. That was it.

  2. amazing piece. w needs a cocoon. must be so scary as a parent not to be able to control that.

  3. 2 songs and a pinata sounds more like more style

    eli - thank you - thank you.
    I *am* getting a little worried. he keeps talking about how the months are going by too fast. really incredible that "The Hurried Child" was written over 30 years ago. that hypersonic child from 1981 would look like a turtle today.

  4. He doesn't have to go by William - that's ridiculous. If his name is Wally he can be Wally. The teachers don't get to decide that if his official first name is William that is his name. If Wally decides he wants to be called William that is different. Plenty of kids go by their middle names.....

  5. Apparently I can never figure out how to post properly. If you got my previous post sent to you to approve....

  6. "Our need to save it, to show it to others, to have it to keep, is more important than our need to feel it, to experience it." 40+ years ago when I was traveling overseas, I understood that I couldn't have the kind of engagement with the culture I wanted if I were going to take pictures. So I didn't. But I have memories of things that wouldn't have been, if I had been putting that lens between me and my friends and distancing myself that way.

    When my children were young we still didn't have digital photography, or mobile phones, and I am so glad! I ache for my grandchildren.

  7. Gretchen - Yes! I absolutely agree and in fact I had the same experience when I did a semester abroad. I took hardly any pictures and sometimes I thought - wow, that is weird that I don't have many/any of that period BUT I know that I wanted the experience of full immersion. I sometimes wish I could see a quick video of myself as a kid, but at the same time, the overall experience of actually living our lives rather than documenting them is clearly superior and a more deeply felt and lived experience. Thank you.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts