Soon, the kids will come home from school clutching those familiar packets of pictures. There's little Susie, looking like a princess, and Todd, with hair all in place.

What brought about this transformation, you may ask. I like to think it has something to do with what I and my colleagues have been up to these past few weeks. We're school photographers.

So far we've done 32 schools and 21,000 kids -- and we're only half way through. Among other things, we've dealt with missing equipment (we've learned to be great improvisers -- you'd be surprised how a couple of music stands can serve as a tripod), black eyes, a broken tooth, double-exposed film (yes, we had to reshoot two schools).

And then there was the little fellow who got his comb so tangled up in his hair, it had to be carefully cut out.

And how about getting them to smile? One clever compromiser was determined to stick out his tongue but he struck a deal: "If I can stick out my tongue on the first one, I'll smile on the next one." And he did.

And so it goes ...

From the journal of a school photographer:

5:30 a.m.

Roust myself out of bed. This is not my time of day, so I collect clothes and gear laid out the night before. Stumble through morning motions, get directions and head out for unknown territory, an elementary school at the other end of Fairfax County.

7:45 Arrive 3 minutes early, makeup hastily applied at stoplights. Rush to help crews set up. We work feverishly -- unscrewing, measuring, plugging, taping. Classroom is transformed into a photo studio.

7:50 We begin work, two teams of three. One school day, 1,043 students. Objective: 1,043 gorgeous smiles, sparkling eyes, neat appearances. One member of a team handles paperwork and money, a second positions child's head in camera (watch out for the top of that bow! -- at least at this age they're not sporting Mohawks), and a third positions child, does last-minute grooming, takes picture.

8:10 First class almost finished. The kids make it all worthwhile. One little boy, a walking mass of cowlicks, shows us Mom's note "Don't touch hair!" Love it.

So many pretty birthday-cake girls. I sigh. My daughter wouldn't go near a puffed sleeve after the age of 4.

9 a.m. Almost through with second class -- 4th graders. It's amazing what little boys can do with simple black combs. They become dueling weapons, mustaches, hair decorations. They're folded in two, balanced on noses and, in the case of one hefty fellow, reduced to an interesting lump of shiny black plastic.

Sure enough, there's always one who, approaching the stool, yells, "I have to go to the bathroom!" Nerves.

9:45 Start 6th grade -- easier, at least they sit still, but there are braces to contend with. Sixty-five details, 17 observations, and lots of memories crowd my mind. Certain children intrigue me -- just like adults, there are those I'd like to get to know. Click, they're gone.

10:30 The morning kindergarten troops in. I note Mom's wishes on back of tab -- glasses on, she has checked. I position child, tilt chin, put knees together, hands in lap. "Hi, handsome, where's that gorgeous smile? Look at me: Say pickle. Say puppies. Say girls."

Oops, you blinked. Oops, you moved. One more time. "Terrific, Thank you sir. Hi, pretty lady, sit right down."

11, 11:30, noon 2nd grade, 1st grade, 5th grade. I remember in the 3rd grade when a photographer said "Hi, beautiful" to every girl (it seemed) but me. Confident this had profound significance, I dwelt on it for days. I recall it 35 years later and am sure to tell everyone they're gorgeous, handsome, pretty, good-looking.

Next, next, next. We button shirts, straighten collars, unroll sleeves, wipe faces, comb hair.

1 p.m. Afternoon kindergarten arrives. The kids are supposed to come tallest to shortest. This group comes shortest to tallest -- raise camera, snap slate, snap teacher twice, where's the aide?

Lower camera, pull it back, focus, refocus. First child approaches.

1:50 We wind up. Being fairly new at this, I am physically and mentally exhausted. My back is breaking from sorting papers and checks. My left eye is killing me from constant refocusing. My feet hurt.

The others bustle busily about as they pack up -- humming, whistling, spritely as all get out, pathologically organized. I rush to help.

All is sorted, unplugged, untaped, unscrewed, removed. Everything has its place, from combs and Handiwipes to the cameras. Envelope with film is sealed, ready for Federal Express. Desks are moved back into place, tripods put in cases, most gear loaded onto luggage carriers.

We go, no trace left behind. Were we ever there? We were one big verb. We'll catch the blinkers and movers and absentees on make-up day. Tomorrow, it's a middle school. Diane Crafts is a writer for Outlook Associates, and a part-time school photographer. She is also a mother and former child.