What Your School Portrait Backdrop Said About You


My brother looking pretty darn 90s.

If you had lasers, you were probably totally rad, in the parlance of the time. You were fashion forward and a bit of a risk taker. Or, you were really into technology, robots, and science. I don’t know why lasers were ever even introduced as a school portrait backdrop, when I think about it. They’re not really relevent to any kid’s experience. “Oh, you know Becky, she just loves shooting lasers!” That’s something no parent ever said. And they weren’t a general, neutral motif, even in the 90s. As an adult, laser portrait kids are probably style pioneers – you favor bright colors and eye catching patterns. At the workplace, you are on the cutting edge and willing to go out on a limb to get noticed. Or, you are really into technology, robots, and science.


I still remember this picture day. What I do not remember is why my mom thought scraping my bouncy childhood ringlets into a messy ponytail was an OK idea.

Your parents picked your backdrop. You grew up in a traditional household of rules and regulations, and your family stayed away from anything too flashy. Or, the other backdrops all cost extra, and your parents thought that something like unnecessary school portrait scenery was a waste of money. They may have also been very concerned about what your grandparents would think. If you chose the cloud background yourself, you were probably Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties. Today, former sky backdrop kids could go either way. You may have rebelled big time in high school and college, turning to some sort of counterculture that required outfits. I don’t care what — goth, hip hop, extreme country music fandom. It may also be that you kept your family’s values, and prefer a streamlined, tidy look. You try not to draw attention to yourself, and avoid displaying obvious status symbols. And when you have kids, you’re not going to throw your money away on stupid laser backdrops. Or whatever the equivalent of lasers is in the 2010s. One of my nephews could have chosen tie-dye, so maybe that.

Some years, my school offered this weird backdrop that looked like you were in a mahogany study, with bookshelves and a roaring fire. There may have been a Christmas tree with stockings hanging. At the time, this probably meant that your parents wanted a Christmas portrait to send to relatives, but were killing two birds with one stone by making the school picture the Christmas picture. If you chose it, it’s because you wanted people to think you lived in a mahogany-paneled estate. Either way, this translates well as an adult. Either you or your parents knew how to get what you wanted without paying out the ears, be it by combining Christmas and school portrait costs or by faking wealth. Now that you’re an adult, I bet you’re great with budgeting and cost-saving measures. You mix up all of those homemade cleaning ingredients on pinterest and are awesome at refinishing secondhand furniture.

That Gray Marbled Situation

My adorable nephew, who probably would have preferred lasers. Poor guy.

It was the only option your school had. Or your parents were very serious and hated fun and frivolity. Or you, yourself, were very serious and hated fun and frivolity. You probably have a super-serious occupation now, and avoid decorating or dressing in colors. Your 401K is probably bigger than mine.

The Double-You

My cousin, with face obscured because she never asked for this.

This option had mostly been phased out by the time I was a child, but lo and behold, one of my nephews had this done in the past year or so! What happens is this: The main photo is the kid looking head-on into the camera and smiling. Then, superimposed above the kid, is the same child in profile, staring inspirationally into the abyss. These pictures are one of the creepiest things I can think of. First of all, the inspirational profile kid is just a disembodied head. Second, it is just straight-up unsettling to see two of the same person in one frame. Presuming you don’t have an identical twin, I would FREAK OUT if I saw you and your double, standing one above the other. It’s like The Shining or The Poltergeist, or any other movie I watched on TBS and freaked out about for a week. So, who chose this backdrop? I think parents who wanted to be “artistic” or kids who always wanted a twin. The parents who went with the “double-you” option thought their kids were gorgeous, smiling or not. They thought relatives and classmates were missing out if they didn’t see your profile as well as the front of your face. Whichever way you cut it, your parents thought you were a stunner and wanted the world to know it. So where are you now? You might be really stuck on yourself and think you’re just the most attractive person in every room you’re in. You make it a point to angle your head up and to the side in conversation, so that people can get the full effect of your perfect profile. Or, I guess maybe your parents just instilled a high sense of self-esteem in you, and you have that.

Neon Blinds

Other brother, also spectacularly ’90s. I now understand why my dad called me “[brother] in drag” as a child, as I looked EXACTLY like this with long hair. Also, not cool, dad. Not cool.

If you wanted the flash and glitz of lasers, but they were a little too busy, then neon blinds were for you. You were probably fairly up on your trends, with at least somewhat lenient parents. I bet you were cool in high school. What does that mean now? You keep an eye on what’s new and trendy, but that doesn’t mean you follow every fad that comes along. Now that your parents are older, they probably are planning on traveling a lot in retirement, but think more Italy and less Bolivia.

Seriously, You Guys, Catholic School Was Fine

At a party in college, a friend from my city asked me about the high school in my suburb. “Well, I lived there, but I actually went to Catholic school.”
“Oh God,” he answered, “I’m sorry.”

But the thing is? I’m not sorry at all. People sometimes assume that, because I grew up into a politically liberal adult who likes outfits, my Catholic school years were probably unbearable — a wasteland of conservative repression and hideous uniforms. Or that since I don’t regularly go to a Catholic church these days, I’ve probably turned against it and am all bitter about it.[1] It’s true that I could go my whole life without wearing another jumper or hearing On Eagles’ Wings[2] again, but for the most part, it was a pretty non-traumatic way to grow up. Here are some misconceptions I’ve run across, and how things actually played out for me:

A nun named Sister William Gerald[3] probably hit you with rulers. First of all, most of my teachers weren’t nuns. They were middle-aged married women[4] wearing adult jumpers. And the nuns that were there were actually pretty nice, usually. True, they didn’t take crap from anyone, but generally in a typical old-lady sense. And I’d be stern too, if I were them. My piano lessons were in the convent, and they had the saddest, smallest, antennaed black and white t.v. – and this was in the mid-90s. Vow of poverty and all that. I mean, you all know how we feel about t.v. around here, right?  Also they had to listen to 6-year-olds play Hot Cross Buns and Ode To Joy all day long. They had a tiny chapel with stained glass windows in the convent, and that was pretty cool, though. But having my own personal, tiny church would not make up for a sub-par television experience. I guess that’s what you get for marrying a famous guy who is also invisible (read: Jesus).

You were denied self-expression because you had to wear uniforms. This probably is just me being a nerd, but I loved my plaid uniform. I liked that I didn’t have to think about what to wear every day. Before a dress-down day, I would look through my entire wardrobe and consult with 2-3 friends by telephone to plan my outfit. There is no way I could have handled that pressure on a daily basis. In retrospect, it was nice that you never knew which kids had tons of nice clothes and which ones didn’t.  Everyone, rich or poor, tall or short, fat or thin, had an equal opportunity to look shapeless and terrible. In terms of creative expression, I had things like crayons and school plays, you know? I creatively expressed myself through clothing in my off-hours, and let me tell you, the results were less than spectacular. Lots of stirrup pants, really, as was the style of the time.

By first grade, this uniform hadn’t stopped me from becoming 39 lbs of concentrated sass.

Your teachers were unqualified, and you only learned about Jesus(/Mary/Joseph). This is the only misconception that I take sort of personally: first of all, I know I received a really good education, and second, my mother is mega-educated and is a Catholic school principal. All of our teachers had masters degrees, just like yours. The graduation standards of my high school were well above my state’s regents diploma. I started college credit courses my sophomore year, and I think senior year was an all-AP schedule for me. I swear we learned about evolution and all of that.[5] We just had religion classes on top of it. This paid off in college, when I entertained friends with Bible Story Time With Molly, where I’d share ridiculous, gruesome, or filthy stories that actually appear in the Bible. In high school I developed a theory that some of that stuff was written by ancient Israelites who ate bad desert mushrooms, etched their musings on stone tablets, then stashed them in a bunch of holy scrolls where they assumed nobody would ever look.

My former elementary is now a public school, but there’s still a cross on top, which I guess is allowed??

You didn’t know about any other religions. In college, I remember meeting classmates and friends who had gone to public school and didn’t know the difference between Catholics and Protestants (or “Catholics and Christians,” as a few maintained that the two were mutually exclusive. Ugh.). I’m not saying that public schools do a bad job of teaching about world religions, I’m just saying that going to one is no guarantee that you are better-informed than a Catholic schooler. My schools did a great job teaching about other religions, and my class even had an awesome partnership with students at a school in Israel. I’d also like to point out that (1) not everyone in my school was Catholic, or even Christian, and (2) like public schoolers, I had … you know, neighbors and friends from outside of school and stuff.

Those were the kids who got beat up in my neighborhood. Yep … okay, yeah. I can’t refute that, because that’s potentially very true. On Sundays, public school kids from our church used to use our classrooms for religious ed. Those punks used to mess with our desks every single week! They even left the cover off of our incubator when we were hatching baby chickens. Luckily the teacher checked on them right after, so no harm there. We were so pathetic that we got out our big classroom chart paper and wrote them a letter asking them to please stop taking our things, if you don’t mind.

1 I would absolutely go to a friendly, non-judgmental church! But do I have to memorize the new mass responses?
2 On Eagles’ Wings is engineered to make people cry at funerals, and vows that God will “make you to shine like the sun,” like a new car or a Twilight vampire.

This song was part of the “contemporary” Catholic music movement of the 70s and 80s. Usually this kind of music is performed by a “folk group,” which is comprised of 4-7 elderly people, one of whom has a guitar. All of the ladies have wavery old-lady church voices. In many churches, the “folk group” is still a “hip” attempt to “reach out to the youth.”

3 My parents have verified that, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, nuns with men’s names were all-around more terrifying that nuns with ladies’ names. So, if your substitute was Sr. Damian Louis, you knew you were worse off than if you had Sr. Margaret Elizabeth.
4 One time someone asked if my mom was a nun since she’s always worked in Catholic schools, and I was all, I don’t think you really get how this nun thing works…
5 In the interest of transparency, our health class was lacking. It was one semester long, and sex ed was basically just graphic descriptions of STIs, and a warning that condoms had tiny holes for AIDS to get through (maybe it was just my teacher? When talking about the id he pronounced it “the I.D.”. He was only on staff because he was a coach, and I think this kind of thing happens at public schools too, maybe? I am basing this opinion entirely off of Mean Girls.) That lasted for about a week, and the rest of the time we watched outdated TV movies about Tracy Gold overcoming things. On a related note, there were like 3-4 pregnant girls my senior year.