When 800 numbers show up in caller ID, I ignore them. But one day recently, as a message was recording, I heard a voice say my son’s name, so I picked up. It was a portrait studio asking about scheduling a session. For a senior portrait. My heart skipped a beat.
I knew the day would come that Zach would be a senior in high school. Twelfth grade. It still feels like last week though, when his kindergarten photo came home in a large envelope with a clear plastic window that revealed a small, innocent face topped by bright blond hair. As every parent speculates: where DID the time go?
“So, when can you come in for a portrait session?” the voice on the line asked. I think he was repeating the question.
My mind swirled. Senior portrait. That’s a big deal. The fake white tuxedo shirt, the bow tie, the black jacket. Hair combed into place. The photo implying that twelve grades of academic learning had taken place. That the person posing for the picture was leaving one phase of life and heading into another. Zach?? How could this be where we are? Should I do this or not? Part of me never wanted to arrive at his senior year. Do parents feel that way? Was I the weird one because I wasn’t jumping with joy that my child is in his last year of high school?
“Yes! I’m here. Sorry. Looking at my calendar.” I lied.
“When is a good day and time?” the young person said.
Making a quick decision to go ahead with the portrait (I could always cancel later on) we chose our date. I scribbled down the address and thanked him. I was doubtful. Zach might not cooperate. He may refuse the bow tie. He could have a meltdown.
The appointment crept up on me, and I realized too late that a trip to Supercuts was not in the cards. Uh-oh. He hadn’t shaved either. He had just gotten home from school and needed some lunch. I had 20 minutes to get him to the studio. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t even have him brush his teeth before we left. Was it denial that this was THE senior portrait? Maybe. More likely, it was the feeling that we wouldn’t even get the bow tie around his neck before he signed “all done” and we’d have to leave to avert a sensory meltdown.
I thought scheduling a 3:45 session on a Friday was a safe bet. No teenager during the second week of school would be going to a photography studio at 3:45 on a Friday to take such important photos! How would the girls even have time to get their hair done? Well, I was wrong. In the waiting area, there were about 20 kids and their parents. In the back room, where they take you to fit the tux or the drape, there were about 15 more. The hallways were narrow, the noise level was high, and the temperature was too warm.
We sat down to wait our turn, and I explained to my senior that he was going to take a picture for the school yearbook. He was going to put on a shirt and tie and jacket over his t-shirt, and he needed to keep it on for a few minutes. I let him know he’d be sitting on a stool with wheels (I peeked in to see the set-up) and that there’d be flashing lights. (I wondered how many moms there were worried that the flashes could induce seizures).
Zach pulled my arm and pressed the buttons on his device to tell me to get up. “We’ve got to wait here bud,” I said, hoping that one of the employees would notice us. “It’s almost our turn.” Waiting is not easy but add the crowds and the loudness. Ugh. I was regretting that I didn’t ask the scheduler about doing a session that would accommodate our unique sensory needs.
“ZACHARY!” A deep voice boomed. I rose from the bench. “You can wait there, Mom,” the woman instructed with her hand held out like a five-fingered STOP sign.
“No, no I can’t…I’ll need to accompany him,” I said, grasping his hand and smoothing his rumpled shirt. She gave me a weird look.
“What’s your size Zachary?” she said, with a tone that revealed she was longing for her weekend to begin.
“He is nonspeaking, and honestly I don’t know his jacket size. He’s never worn one.” No haircut, no shave, no jacket size. Gee whiz. Denial at its best.
“Alright then, I gotcha.” she said as she whipped out a tape measure. She naturally, surprisingly began telling him what she was doing and what was coming next. My gosh – could it be that more and more people are exposed to individuals with autism and are learning how to approach them?
As she gently fitted the white bib and the bow tie, I grimaced at how un-white the bib was. Couldn’t they douse those with some bleach every now and then? To my amazement, Zach didn’t try to slide off the tie. He dealt with the fact that this bib-like mini shirt was over his Under Armour t-shirt. The woman, drenched in too much cologne, put the jacket on him.
“Uh oh, too loose!” she said. “That’s our smallest size. We gonna need to pin it.”
There we go, I thought. Deal killer. He will not stand for clothespins around his midsection. If I have to, I thought, I’ll kneel behind him and scrunch up that sucker. But lo and behold! He tolerated the pins as well!
“Ronan will be in soon to take your pictures, Zachary.” And she spun and left the black room.
Great, I thought. I now get to sit in this black room, with my unshaven 18-year-old who is wearing this uncomfortable get-up. I took out the nailbrush I carry for such occasions, and began brushing Zach’s legs and palms. I had to laugh at the tuxedo top with the athletic shorts bottom.
I narrated for him the importance of this photo and told him 19 times in a row why we were there. Suddenly, as if materializing from the blackness, a small-framed young man appeared. He was wearing black clothing and had black hair. Zach noticed his hair and pointed. To break the ice, I told Ronan of Zach’s infatuation with hair.
“Ohhh,” he chuckled, “Okay Zach, so you like hair? Well we’re gonna take pictures of your hair. Can you show me your hair?”
Zach tapped his head, and I realized he still had his red earphones on. Hurdle #9. Taking off the earphones. Once again, Zach complied. When the situation calls for it, Zach steps up.
So Ronan began adjusting lights and flashing things. Zach discovered that the stool spun around. When lighting was optimal, Ronan gave the standard instruction: smile! Say ‘cheese!’”
Zach opened his mouth wide, the way you do at the dentist. We probably have 300 pictures of Zach “smiling” this way. Ronan told Zach to close his mouth. Zach clenched his teeth. Ronan scratched his head. The slight photographer instructed him to relax. Zach tilted his head backwards. I didn’t want Zach to topple over, so I jumped over the electrical cord and brought his head to a full upright position like an airplane seat. Then, a clothespin popped off. We slid it back on.
Ronan repeated, “Say cheese!” And Zach began adjusting the tongues on his sneakers.
“Not likely to happen,” I offered. “Here, let me try something if you don’t mind me standing close to you.”
I pulled out a torn magazine ad from my purse which showed five women tossing their L’Oreal hair in the breeze. Well, it got Zach’s eyeballs in the right direction! I may not have gotten that pre-portrait haircut, but I had a nailbrush for sensory input and a magazine ad for hair dye in my purse! I think Ronan was quickly catching on to the fact that this was going to be, shall we say, a different sort of photo shoot. We needed only one good photo – the yearbook photo. I had previously decided that we’d forego the package deal with three separate outfits + graduation cap and gown. Our circumstances dictated this, as well as my aching heart.
“Zach, hey, look at your mom’s picture! Do you like hair?” Bless your heart Ronan. He was a quick study. Zach smiled, but then immediately touched his hair. Ku-click. I saw the preview in Ronan’s camera. He looked like he was putting on an invisible hat. “Let’s try again Zach,” Ronan said. Ohhhhhhh there’s that ABA language Zach detests! Beads of sweat were now appearing on my forehead. What do I do if Zach gets angry about hearing try again? Suddenly, Zach jumped off the stool. He came at my face. He took his hand and wiped my forehead because he hates sweaty faces. Another clothespin popped off. Ronan laughed. I had to start taking deep breaths.
“We can’t say try again, actually; it makes Zach upset. Sorry.” I told him.
“Oh no worries,” he said. “Why don’t you do whatever you think will work and I’ll just keep taking pictures.”
So there I was, moving the magazine ad up and down and using funny voices to describe the hair. I think I sounded like Cookie Monster meets Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. I saw a teenage head peer around the corner by the door. I’m sure people in the hall could hear the ridiculousness going on. I imagined speech balloons floating above the perfectly groomed heads of hair with the WTH?? in them.
Zach lost interest in the magazine ad and started pointing at me (he wanted it put away). We didn’t have a decent headshot. But Ronan wouldn’t give up. He asked what else Zach liked. I said bacon. How pointless to say that! Like we’d find bacon in a portrait studio in the middle of an industrial complex on a Friday afternoon. I laughed.
“Well, there’s my hair,” I said. “Can I sit on the floor in front of you?”
I began fluffing and twisting and disheveling my hair. If he saw my sweaty forehead at that point, he would’ve shed the jacket to use as a towel. Ronan clicked away until more clothespins detached and the stool was too close to the camera. More directives were needed. Back up buddy! Zach rolled the stool 10 feet back to the wall. Sit up straight! And Zach sat up, but also raised his eyebrows which made him look like someone goosed him. Turn your head that way a little! And Ronan got a great portrait of his ear. Close your mouth! And Zach’s pursed lips resembled Bart Simpson’s.
The photographer and I were both sweating now. WhatToDoWhatToDo…
“Okay Zach, let’s do wwwwwwwwon more, okay? We’re gonna get it this time.” Ronan shot me a look that said do whatever you gotta do Mom. I gave a nod of my chin. It was like Murtaugh and Riggs exchanging glances before storming a ship full of bad guys.
“Got anything pink??” I whispered.
He instantly produced a hot pink feather. Perfect. Maybe bacon wasn’t such an odd request after all.
Pink feather in hand, I tousled my hair and tried to get Zach to laugh with the Shaggy-Cookie-Monster voice. Kuclick-click kuclick-click kuclick-click.
The Canon took final shots, and the rapid fire flash left me seeing spots. Zach rubbed his eyes and stood up. Knowing it was a done deal, Zach pulled off the jacket like a matador whipping a cape. Clothespins flew. I tried to collect them, but I think Ronan took pity on me and told me to leave them on the floor. Zach tugged at the bow tie and tossed off the bib. I handed him his headphones and iPad. He quickly selected the bye button on his device and took off. I had a milli-second to thank Ronan for working with us and being so patient. I tossed him the pink feather, and he assured me there’d be some good ones in the batch. Proofs would be sent.
My skinny young 12th grader weaved his way through the sea of teenage legs awaiting their turn to step into the black room. I tiptoed through as best I could to catch up to him. He was eyeing those computers by the front desk and might have gone behind the counter to turn them off if I hadn’t zoomed over to him and laced my fingers through his.
“You were awesome in there!” I whispered to him. “You took a senior portrait for the yearbook! I’m proud of you.” I kissed the back of his hand. A woman seated nearby glanced up and smiled.
Once in our sweltering car, I just sat there for a moment with the AC blasting my face. I gathered my hair into a ponytail. I was amazed that we were inside a mere 20 minutes. It seemed so much longer. Maybe dark studios give you that time warp effect.
I reflected on the mixed emotions this appointment produced. I wasn’t going to go through with taking a portrait for the yearbook. And that’s despite 22 years of being a yearbook teacher and knowing that senior portraits are everything. I didn’t want to feel the sting of seeing my son in formal wear that didn’t mean to him what it means to others his age. I didn’t want to see other boys in wool sweaters or football jackets posing for their portraits with ear to ear grins. Life in our house is different, and while I’m perfectly okay with that, certain important events do trigger rather bittersweet feelings.
So instead of being filled with pride for 12 grades of school being completed, I had pride that my son tolerated a mock tuxedo and sat on a stool in a stuffy studio for as long as he did. I was relieved that the flashing lights didn’t induce a seizure. I was grateful that we likely captured a good image or two and that we created the opportunity for him to be in the yearbook. Will there be a group of friends signing Zach’s yearbook? Painfully, no. I’ve wished with all my heart for that to be different. When the yearbook is released, I will show Zach his portrait. Show him that he is included. That he’s important. That he counts. It’s hard to think about my boy as a senior when all the typical twelfth grade traditions pass us by like search helicopters in the night. Although the milestone of Senior Year just doesn’t hold the same meaning for us as it does for other families, we could include him in the yearbook. Our milestones come around spontaneously and unexpectedly instead of according to a school calendar. I’ve learned to accept that as well as appreciate that.
Time, energy, and emotion is not well spent on things that can’t be ours. Instead, I focus on having experiences and making memories in ways that serve Zach. I cannot be sure what events imprint themselves in his limbic system. I hope that good memories outweigh bad and that feelings of joy override the pain. I’ll look back on the senior portrait session with a sigh and a laugh. I will not look upon the photo as a poor-trait, but rather a masterpiece.