In the Fall of 2007, I got a call from my then 82 year old second cousin, Joanne Dann. The purpose of the call, to tell me that I needed to go build up the self esteem of kids attending the school just announced as the lowest performing school, in the lowest performing state, in the county. She had read about it in the Washington Post.
Now I already do a lot of very rewarding (unpaid) work locally, if I wanted to do more, there is plenty of opportunity to do so without adding in travel. But not wanting to offend Joanne, I suggested she initiate the project with the school’s principal.
I honestly thought this would be an easy way to kill the idea. But the principal was thrilled. So we packed our bags, my camera and a little travel printer with loads of ink and paper and Joanne and I were off to Como, Mississippi.
We wanted each child to have a laminated 4/6 before we left (Yes we did end up printing for the adults too, but that’s a story for another post.) and Joanne was in charge of running the printer.
We got lucky and set up in a big room with a bank of large windows. The first group came in and I discovered two things that surprised me: 1) Most of the kids had never had their picture taken 2) many of the kids didn’t seem to be able to smile. For all of my work with kids in foster care, I had never experienced what appeared to be almost a physical inability to smile.
I was freaking out, envisioning a series of strained and sullen expressions and a negative experience for the kids. And then, out of nowhere, it came to me: ‘Jump up and down three times. Spin around three times,’ I suggested. Turns out, dizzy kids have wonderful, natural expressions.
Several teachers stopped to talk to me about the impact of the pictures on the kids. Some told me that they were surprised by the pictures, that they had never before seen many of the kids smiling. Not ever.
That teacher talked about hearing the other kids repeating whatever I had said them as well, “Miss Joan told me I have a nice smile.” “Miss Joan told me she likes the twinkle in my eyes.” It was a good reminder to be thoughtful about what I say to kids, every word really can be important.
One teacher reported to me that one of her students — the lowest performing student in the classroom — had told her that rather than take his picture home, he wanted to put it up in the classroom, so everyone could see it. Apparently this was the first time she had ever seen him respond with pride to anything before.
Joanne’s expectations of the long-term impact we could make in three days of picture taking were probably unrealistic. But I’ll never forget walking out of the school on that last day to a chorus of final good-bye’s, “Bye Picture Lady, thank you!”