Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Photo Essay: The Scarf

Although Skylar's school goes for three more days next week, Friday was her last day. We're meeting my sister and her three-year-old son at a beachside campground where the days following Memorial Day are one of the few times that aren't reserved in advance within seconds of their becoming available. Because she was sad about missing some of the last week's fun activities, we persuaded her teacher to move up the class auction so that Skylar could attend. Students collect points for good behavior throughout the year that they can then use to win a surprisingly wide range of donated goodies. Her teacher's condition was that I volunteer, since she was moving the event to accommodate us. And I was happy to do so, despite the fact that it ended up being an all-day commitment, since they could only hold the auction in between other scheduled activities, like Spanish, Art and Math.

The good thing for me about spreading the auction over the whole school day was that I had free time to take pictures of Skylar and her friends during recess and lunch. At first I only intended to document, at her request, the goings-on in "Smalltown," the make-believe community that she and many other students labored to maintain over much of the school year. I'm thinking of writing a longer piece, with her assistance, on the fascinating twists and turns of this recess activity, which has functioned a good deal like multi-player internet pursuits like Second Life, only without the use of computer technology. Delineated by rock boundaries whose transience calls to mind Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall", Smalltown has taught participants useful lessons -- sometimes painful ones -- about the difficulty of keeping a community running without the power of the state to encourage good behavior with the threat of force.

That's Skylar in the black sweater, arms raised to catch a flying disc thrown by one of the kindergarden buddies she and her fellow fourth-graders were assigned to mentor. In the case of her and some of her friends, this brief exercise in cross-class collaboration turned into an immensely rewarding social activity that lasted for months.

Once I had started taking pictures, I realized that it made sense to document not only Smalltown, but the interactions that have mattered most to Skylar throughout the school year. When she and a few of her fourth-grade and kindergarten friends began to play what I thought of as "Pass the Fetish," taking turns with each other's favorite accessory, I was able to zoom in for some shots that show how much fun they were having.

In this photo, Skylar is wearing her friend's treasured Phoenix Cardinals hat while watching one of their "kinderbuddies" get decked out in her own scarf.

As often happens when I'm taking lots of photographs in rapid succession, what had begun with a loosely conceived plan to capture something not long for this world soon turned into an assignment with a more focused theme. I began to pay close attention to Skylar's scarf, which rarely stayed in one position for very long.

In this shot another one of her fourth-grade friends appears to be getting fitted to wear the scarf as a stand-in for elegant attire. Skylar certainly has the look of the fashion designer as she sizes up the ensemble.

Recess is short, though. I can't believe how little time the students at her school have to play compared to what I had at her age. Soon the lunch bell rang and she and her friends were rushing to the "MPR," as they call it, to make sure they had time to eat.

Lunch feels even more rushed than recess. Despite the fact that her school district is making a much-ballyhooed effort to promote physical fitness, they don't give students the time they need to eat at a pace that will let the body's natural "I'm sated" triggers kick in.

Still, the kids try to make the best of a bad situation, cramming in a little social time together with the food they have to shove too rapidly down their throats. I wouldn't describe it as a pleasant experience to witness as an outsider. But Skylar at least seemed to be having a good time. She even found time for a moment of contemplation.

I love it when she wears that expression, because it almost always means that she's going to say something deep later on. In this particular case, however, the thought brewing inside her was deferred by more pressing concerns. Or perhaps those concerns were the subject of her contemplation. After all, this wasn't just her her last day of fourth grade. It was also, in all likelihood, the last day she will ever spend in a traditional classroom with a teacher she stays with for most of the day, from morning until the final bell. Some of her fourth-grade-teacher's former students come back to help out in her classroom once their school day is done -- the middle school starts much earlier than Skylar's elementary -- which surprised me at first. But then I realized that this teacher was the last one they had spent enough time with to form that special kind of bond that comes with deep familiarity. I wonder what middle school and high school would be like if students were given the opportunity to root themselves in a homeroom that really felt like home. I suppose that's what activities like drama and sports are for, but there's something different about extracurricular mentoring and the sort that comes with having a single teacher who presides over one's academic work.

The stupid thing about the way Skylar's school handles lunch is that students are rushed out of the MPR, frantically trying to finish, only to then be queued up like customers at a Costco on the weekend. They spent more time waiting for their particular line to be given the go-ahead to return to the classroom than they did eating. Of course, in this particular instance that was a welcome development for both Skylar, who was eager for the time socialize, and me, since I could take pictures of her interacting with her classmates in natural light that was, like a gift from the Almighty, the diffuse sort that comes from an overcast sky, a rarity at this time of year in Tucson.

That's another expression of Skylar's that I love. It usually comes when she's goofing around confidently, a mode that I'm always delighted to see her deploy. Her inner toughness really comes out in those situations, as the set of her jaw here demonstrates.

I try to make photographs that are well composed. Sometimes, though, it's more important to capture a moment than to worry about whether the background suits the subject. This downcast-eyes smile is one that I've documented many times on video, but struggle to capture in still photographs because it usually comes when Skylar is in motion.

I like what the scarf adds to the photograph. The blur of the face relative to the sharpness elsewhere in the image is tempered by the fact that portion of the scarf to the right of her head is also moving slightly.

In previous years, my volunteer stints at Skylar's school usually involved her whole class. Fourth-grade was different. They don't use parent volunteers as much. But I did end up getting to come in regularly to help the small group of "extended spellers," which is basically the category her teacher smartly reserved for students who should have been in the gifted program but weren't, because admission to it is heavily biased towards students who shine in math as opposed to language or fine arts. I really got to like the kids I worked with, two of whom are seen cavorting in this shot as Skylar looks on.

One measure of their teacher's virtues this year is that the clique-ishness that plagues relations between girls even in elementary school was never oppressive. As spending the whole day with the class yesterday made clear, the pros and cons of close friendships are counter-balanced by interaction with friendly acquaintances. When the occasion presented itself, the students in Skylar's class knew how to have a good time with whatever classmates were nearby.

The more I watched Skylar play, the more obvious it became that the scarf helped her in social interactions. Sometimes, as in the exchange with the kindergartners, it served as a focal point. Other times it proved to be a more subtle accessory.

I don't think what they were laughing with had anything to do with the scarf, but it still feels central to the proceedings somehow. Maybe it's a good-luck scarf, since everyone who touched it seemed to experience a wave of happiness.

At one point while her class was waiting in line, Skylar stopped to point something out in the sky. I couldn't tell what she was directing her friends' attention towards, but I did notice that the scarf now appeared to have morphed into a stylish belt.

One way that I can tell that she has made major progress on the social front this year is that, whereas in the past she would either spend all her time with one or two people or drift off by herself, she now moves fluidly from one group to the next. And she doesn't just play the role of hanger-on in these different contexts. She merits enough respect from her classmates that she has the power to command their attention when she wishes to do so.

The two students near her in that last shot and the shots that follow at the end of this photo essay are ones that she gets along with especially well. But their interactions don't feel fraught like the ones she had with her best friend in first and second grade did. That friendship ended very badly at the beginning of third grade. Skylar now manages to have cordial relations with the girl. Sometimes they even played together in Smalltown without it being too big a deal. Still, the hurt that accompanied the breaking apart of their friendship remains. I'm delighted that she has found a way to get close to some of her fellow students without getting too close for comfort. Of course, the personality of the students is a factor. These two friends seem comfortable in themselves and have a strong sense of personal autonomy, unlike the friend from first and second grade.

I don't recall Skylar moving her scarf from her waist to this position in the tenth of a second between the last shot and this one. At times, it seemed to move with the speed of her mind, which can hurtled at an impressive clip when she's immersed in an activity.

Skylar will be attending theater camp again this summer, along with the girl in these last few photos. I'm glad. Looking back on the pictures I took yesterday, I was struck, again, by how theatrical her approach to communication is. She speaks with a strong, clear voice, but it isn't necessarily her voice. Sure, the impulse to do things in character can sometimes serve as a way to avoid experiencing difficult situations directly. But I'd rather have a daughter who knows how to make judicious use of that sort of escapism than one who can only find a way-out through shopping or mind-altering substances.

Items like this scarf may play the role of props in her social interactions. They may function as fetishes. Yet she is no longer fixated on them as she was in her pre-school days. Although she would be sad to lose this scarf or other special objects, certainly, I no longer get the sense that their specificity takes precedence over the power of her mind to make productive use of whatever material is at hand.

Perhaps that is what growing up "right" means. If neuroses and other mental disorders are manifested either in a failure to abstract from the specific to the general -- being incapable of using one scarf this day and another scarf the next, or a scarf this day and some other object the next -- or a failure to put limits on the capacity for abstraction -- draining every object of its particularity to the point where their material reality is entirely dispensed with -- then what we should desire for our children is that they maintain the proper relation between self and prosthesis, relying on whatever accessories they need without forgetting that their own minds run the show.

There will always be moments of doubt or awkwardness, as this last shot above appears to demonstrate. Whether we're talking about the transition from lunch to the classroom or from fourth grade to fifth, the joy felt when things go the way we want or, just as importantly, when we are too busy having fun to remember what we wanted, is not a joy that can be maintained without interruption. Yet the lessons of Smalltown and other imagination play of that sort is that the way out of difficulties is not to be found in fixating on what has been lost -- a sitting rock that got moved out of one's house, a treasured object that has been lost or left at home -- but in finding a way to make the best of what's currently at one's disposal. The cloud that had seemingly passed over the faces of Skylar and her friends at the moment captured in this picture dissipated almost immediately. And the scarf was once again moving fluidly from one spot to the next. Held temporarily in abeyance here, though, it's an inert object with a potential to become lively that is not currently being realized. Just a scarf, in other words, yet one that still gives its bearer something to hold onto, a prop to prop up her doubt against before finding the way out of this moment and into the next.

Tags: daughter, photo essay, photography, theory

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