WRITERS PRIZE: 15 / FEB / 2022
SHAKING OUT OF POLAROID NOSTALGIA
by Robert Lewis
During the last week of the 2020-21 school year, one of my middle school students asked to take a picture with his friends. The student, a seventh grader in my English Language Learners class, was a bit of a handful; he didn’t really ask, he told. "We’re going to take a picture", he said. But just as I was ready to verbally pounce, I saw him slip his hand into his knapsack and pull out a modern, instant camera. I melted. He unbuttoned the black case of his black Fujifilm Instamax Mini 11 and looked at me. I nodded. "Great choice", I said.
As he jumped up (pushing apart plastic-shielded desks) and gathered his classmates to take the picture in the middle of the classroom, I remembered the 'Polaroid Pictures' I’d taken with my own friends at the University of Florida, years earlier. A good friend had the same camera, in white, and I reminisced on all the moments she captured with it. Late nights in the student common area, snippets of parties in friends’ dorm rooms, 'family portraits' of our group of pals – for which I insisted on carrying a plastic folding chair. Come Christmas time, she used all the pictures she’d collected as ornaments for her small, snow-white, plastic Christmas tree and invited us all to come look at them. I thought about how the pictures were rarely visually perfect, but almost always perfectly captured the moment they were taken in. The grainy or blurry result was easily forgiven for the immediate physical manifestation of a memory. The white strip at the bottom of the vertical, rectangular image was the perfect caption holder – a landing strip for a pen to scribble a date or a brief description of the time you might long for years, or even days, later.
The camera flashed. I blinked. I remembered that I was a middle school English teacher. I watched as the picture quickly pushed itself free from its creator. The class watched as color flooded into the white, glossy rectangle. And as the shapes began to form, the classmates realized that the girl that had stood at the end of the group had been unintentionally left just out of frame. They turned to look at her, worried at how she’d take being left out of the memory. She laughed, pulled out a black Sharpie, and drew and labeled a stick figure of herself on the picture’s thin, white border. The group smiled, sliding their Covid-resisting facemasks back (mostly) over their mouths and noses. They found their seats, proud at preserving a moment from the year they’d gone to school during a pandemic. Proud, whether they realized it or not, at having used an old technology to capture the joy of finishing a schoolyear that forced them to use new technologies to learn for months from home. And days later, when the time came to say their final goodbyes, they asked each other not only to sign year books, but also to sign their school-branded plastic face shields; they were protective lens through which they had been forced to view the disease-stricken world. Then they asked to take more instant pictures, to make tangible the memories their kids would ask them about one day. I hope they show them the photos.
Image: An instant photo taken by the author and his friends in college.