The Good, The Bad, The Haunting

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In a merciful world, no parent would be forced to view such horror. But in the flaming heckhole of reality, I had no choice. And it was worse than I ever could have imagined.

My little boy's beautiful, angelic face was frozen, forever, into a grotesque death mask.

His huge green eyes were now cruel slashes of black. His smile, once so sweet and hopeful, had been replaced by a hideous grimace.

"Oh, the humanity!" I sobbed. "How much did I pay for these school pictures, anyway?"

I'm not kidding. These were bad photographs.

I was waiting outside my son's kindergarten classroom the day they were handed out. Upon the last bell of the day, the boy ran to me in tears, waving the portrait envelope and wailing, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

Bear in mind this is a youngster who previously had no idea there was any such thing as good pictures and bad pictures. He thought they were all pretty much the same because he had no standard of measurement.

He now has a standard.

So does his teacher. After class, she ran up to me as well, offering profuse apologies and promising that the new photographs she'd already scheduled to be taken the following week would be far superior to the current batch.

That wasn't hard to believe, since the current batch could be used as promotional advertising for "The Night of the Zombie Kindergartners."

This may sound like a case of common, everyday parental overreaction, but there's a lot at stake here. Consider these sobering facts and figures:

In my extended family there are about 9,762 people demanding both wallet-size and 8x10 copies of my son's latest school portrait.

Roughly 9,718 are getting on in years and could easily expire while under the woeful misimpression that they are blood kin to a 5-year-old side-show attraction.

Each of our 9,762 relatives owns a refrigerator and, presumably, refrigerator magnets. This means our son's photo is destined for display all over the country.

Should our kinfolk also possess average-sized American families (2.8 persons), we're talking 27,333.6 relatives and near-relatives who'd gag at the sight of my son whenever they passed their own icebox.

If each member of this army welcomed only three visitors per year into their homes within the next year, 82,000.8 total strangers would also come in direct visual contract with the offending portrait.

27,333.6 + 82,000.8 = 109,224.4 With 86,400 seconds in a day, simple mathematics reveals that every .7902 seconds, someone, somewhere in America would be staring slack-jawed at my son's school picture and gasping, "Oh, my! What an unfortunate child!"

And it wouldn't end there. One bad school picture can haunt you forever. Believe me. I speak from experience.

I was home feigning illness the day my fourth-grade pictures were taken. So I posed on another day, for another photographer more fond of extreme close-ups than his predecessor.

As it turned out, the picture looked fine until it was pasted into the school yearbook. Next to all the head-and-shoulder portraits of my classmates, my all-cranium shot made me look like something out of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

For the next two years, I was known as "Balloon-Head Burkett."

Thirty years later, I ran into an old grade-school chum. After a very pleasant conversation, he said, "Hey ... didn't you used to have, like, a really big head? It looks fairly normal now. Did you have surgery or something?"

As you can see, parental overreaction in this situation is impossible.

In Japan, I've heard, mothers and fathers commonly kill themselves over bad school pictures as a matter of honor. In some Middle Eastern countries, they simply behead, behand and befoot the photographer, which seems a much more reasonable solution to me.

But I have no intention of going that far. Not until I see the retakes.

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