The ceremony was over, duly recorded on the roll of 35-millimeter film that the mother now slipped into her pocket. She filed slowly down the concrete steps of the amphitheater toward the girls in white dresses and the boys in ties.
Around her were the other families with their own cameras. She knew that each roll of film would feature a different star. Yet these parents shared an impulse to capture this passage in their children's lives. After all, so many changes had taken place here without an official photograph.
At the bottom of the steps, the girls were hugging each other in their promised rite of crying. Those who would see each other later the same night, those who never liked each other and those who would go on to high school together, collectively anointed their graduation with tears.
The mother watched with fondness and amusement. Eight years ago, some of the children had entered this building in tears. Now they exited in tears. Once they had felt a wrench leaving home and parents; now they felt a wrench leaving school and each other.
Not wanting to intrude on this scene, the mother moved into the lunchroom looking for her punch and peers. She, too, had been coming to this building for eight years. She had come bearing forgotten permission-slips and lunches. Come for plays and conferences. But she was always a visitor, allotted certain hours. This was her daughter's place, not hers.
Now, on the verge of leave-taking, she was acutely conscious of how much in her daughter's life, how much in all these lives, had taken place in this building. How many crucial moments were imprinted on the psychic memory tape of 70 personalities.
She wondered what a real school album would look like. How would you frame the moment when an only child realized that he was now one of 25? The moment when a second-grader understood that praise came for performance, not just existence? The moment when a fifth-grader was suddenly, inexplicably disliked?
How would you get a snapshot of self-confidence building or shattering? What lens would you use to watch a clique of little girls including and excluding each other? How would you get a close-up of a student encountering a teacher's injustice for the first time and a parent's impotence? What filmmaker could develop an evolving self-image?
The mother had brought her daughter to this school with the usual baggage of mixed emotions. She had the photo to prove it. Like the other parents she'd made an exchange with a human commodity. She signed the girl up for learning, and turned over her hours and control. Her daughter was, largely, set on her own.
At times these two, parents and teachers, families and school, formed an alliance. At times they faced off in a power struggle. At times they had similar visions, at times quite the opposite. But together they made a life.
From the first day to this, the last day, the mother had felt moments of uncertainty and distance from the school experience. On occasion she had overreacted, underreacted, misjudged events that she hadn't witnessed.
At times, the girl must have felt as if she were in shared custody. She uttered lines that sounded like captions for missing pictures: "But that's what the teacher told me." "All the kids are doing it." "You don't understand."
After eight years of the, the mother was no longer surprised by any tension that existed between parents and schools. Even the best of schools framed another world for our children. Hurt them, rewarded them, tested them by other standards. Even the best of schools separated them from us. Gave them other aduits, other rules, other ideas.
The star of this graduation film stood in the amphitheater exchanging promises and summer addresses with her friends. They were lucky. Their building had housed "the best of schools." It was caring, attentive, alive, complex. So, in many ways, was the girl who had grown up here.
Across the room, the mother fingered the film in her pocket, and wondered how you capture that on Kodachrome.