When I was recognized with a teaching award, I was not prepared for many of the new roles I would have to play. I was not ready to smile for the camera, to answer reporters’ questions, or to have to present myself as a representative for state education at all times. Still, I learned. I wear make-up. I smile in pictures. I wear colors besides gray, brown, and black. In fact, there is a visible learning curve in the photographs of me as I have become more and more comfortable.
When a cameraman blinds me with a spotlight, I no longer scream: “CarolAnn! Don’t go into the light, CarolAnn!” That went over well, for the record. When I had publicity photos taken with the car that Toyota lent me, I resisted the urge to climb on the hood like Tawny Kitaen. I also exercised extreme restraint when presented with a giant novelty check; I did not ask to be photographed beneath it, as if it were crushing me, and I did not make jokes about trying to cram it into one of the tubes at the bank drive-through. I have had difficulty learning to keep my thoughts to myself (no matter how funny I think they are), and keeping track of my face and body has presented a double challenge. I have learned to stand up straight, finally, after all those years of my mom harassing me, and I have learned, somehow, to lose that frantic, strained look I have always had in front of a camera. Amazingly, about six months into this thing, I have begun to look relaxed, natural, and—for the first time in my life—pretty in pictures.
My past, devastatingly bad photogenic record, however, has made me wary of having my picture taken. Part of the problem is that I am extremely expressive, so the likelihood of a camera catching me making some gruesome face is very high. I once had a student entitle her final reflection for my class “The Many Faces,” and another time, when an album of a special event in my life came back from the photographer, I actually yo-yoed between laughter and tears because of the pictures of me. Hideous. Anyway, it was with years of photographic tragedy weighing on my shoulders that I entered the Oval Office to have my picture made with President and Mrs. Bush.
I guess it didn’t help that I’d had multiple discussions with one of my friends about crossing my eyes and sticking out my tongue when I turned to the camera. Or that I chose to wear very high heels to prevent the world from seeing how short I really am. Or that I’m at the end of the alphabet when we’re in order by state, so I had 53 photographs worth of time for my makeup and hair to wilt and for my brain to consider all of the absurd things I could not say. Or that the whole experience was about eighteen seconds long. The extent of my conversation with the Presidential couple was about three sentences, consisting generally of the words “good morning,” “West Virginia,” “congratulations,” and “thank you.” It was a handshake, a smile, a click, and that’s it. There were no retakes.
When the e-mail attachment of the White House photo came, then, I opened it with much trepidation. What face might I be making? Miraculously, I looked happy, relaxed, and confident. When my principal forwarded it to the whole staff, one of my illustrious colleagues replaced the Bushes’ heads with the ones from Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, copied it, and distributed a print in everyone’s mailbox—but he left my face alone. My state coordinator had a huge color copy made and framed for me; “That’s your best picture so far,” he said. The kicker was this: when I showed it to my kids, large as life on the whiteboard, they said, in every class: “You look good, but we don’t think you really met them because they look like they’re made of plastic.” And not one of them laughed at the picture of me.