Trying to find a child for a Christmas picture sounds easy. It’s not. Even in those bygone days of being a newspaper reporter/journalist beginning in 1980, I learned just how hard it can be. Which says too much about our society.
It was probably the late 1980s when I was with a Charleston area paper. I was so busy it seemed like I was typing in my sleep. That’s when I got a call from an elementary school principal asking us to do a story and pictures about their Christmas display. One of my bailiwicks was area schools. I did a quick run-by to check out their set-up, which was very well done. They had a fireplace with real gas logs, so . . . a real fire going. It was one of those old schools with the high ceiling, so they had a huge Christmas tree with lights glowing. Comfortable chairs and a rocker and area rug were strategically placed, and garlands and wreaths provided a green background. It was as old-fashioned and homey a Christmas setting as anyone could hope for.
I was already envisioning my photographs. I did a quick interview with the principal about how this unique display came about, then we had a chat about setting up the session. I wanted a first-grade boy to be the life of the photos in that old-fashioned setting. It would make great front page. Before I left, I emphasized it must be a first-grade boy. “Girls are trouble” I said. “Not because of the girls themselves, but because of misguided parents”. I wanted that rare and old-fashioned innocence to shine through those photos. Child-like Christmas joy and wonder without artifice.
When I got to the school at the appointed time, I was not only excited about giving some publicity to the school, but about how great this picture would look in our paper with that perfect room. When I walked in, my face fell. There was a girl. And not only a girl, but one from a nightmare. Face slathered with make-up, obvious mascara and eye shadow, inappropriate attire. Big hoop earrings. She looked like a hooker on a bad day. The principal was nervous. With good reason. I took him aside and lit into him before he could say a word.
“This is obviously no boy like I asked for, and she’s at least sixth grade,” I said, my voice tight with barely suppressed anger. “What happened?”
“No. She’s first grade,” he offered, as a sop for my obvious ire.
You’ve GOT to be kidding me,” I said, glancing at a first-grade child who looked like she was years and miles beyond that innocence. “Well, send her back, or home, or whatever you want to do with her, but no way is this child/adult going into this picture.”
If possible the principal looked even more nervous, like a man caught between a rock and hard place.
“I can’t do that,” he stammered.
“It has already been settled and her parents are expecting it.”
I’d been around school systems enough to know all about their in-house politics, which is one huge reason the schools are in so much trouble today. I also knew the principal and the child were probably victims of an influential family — maybe a board member with no taste whatsoever. Who knows?
I began to feel sorry for the principal and the child, though I would have preferred a man with more guts. Yeah. Yeah. I know. His job. His family. His income. But this was a man who could be used as a doormat, and that’s no way for any man to live. You can stand your ground sometimes, even as an employee. I’ve done it. With mixed results. I could have refused and said I would come back when a more appropriate subject was available. But I wasn’t going to make his lot any worse than it had to be. I would fix this as best I could.
I walked over to the child.
“Honey,” I said. “Let’s lose the hoop earrings, okay?”
She didn’t look happy. I think she was used to being dolled up. But she took them off. I brushed off the major part of the make-up with a tissue and did a little something to her hair. Nothing I could do about the clothes except to arrange the most important pose where they were less obvious. And when the photos were developed they looked much better than I anticipated.
But that experience made me determine never to get caught in this kind of trap again. When all was done and the child sent back to her class, I told the principal that the next time I set up a photo shoot with him there’d better not be any surprises. He might not have a choice, but I certainly did. I would turn on my heel and walk out. And he could quote me verbatim to whoever strong-armed him into this travesty.
Christmas, to me, is a time of joyful innocence. Even many adults often have a glow about them at this time of year. I just wish children would be allowed to be children a little longer.
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea . . . See to it that you do not despise one of these little ones, because I tell you, their angels in heaven always have access to my Father in heaven.
Matthew 18:6 & 10.