Back to school | beauty and innocence

Each year on the first day of school, we were greeted by an overweight middle-aged man and his colourful van:

School photography
portraits – groups – passport photos

Like most teenagers, I was never particularly fond of having my picture taken, nor of being alone in a van with a sweaty middle-aged photographer. Knees shaking, I’d close the door behind me, sit on the tiny stool, and put on my best smile. The ordeal would take no more than 45 seconds, yet those 45 seconds were the most memorable part of the day.

Today, I’ll grudgingly admit that those mandatory snapshots were probably a good idea. No way would I have volunteered to have my picture taken then, yet now it is kind of nice to see what I looked like in my early teens. In fact, quite to my surprise, my favourite picture of my younger self is the school portrait taken at the start of year two. I mean, look at me! 12.62 years old, and I look just perfect. It’s also the last photo of me before everything changed.

The abuse started at the age of 12.96, a few weeks before the New Millennium. I was convinced that everybody could see it, smell it, or simply knew it. My body was never the same; the abuse was everywhere. I have this very clear mental image, almost like a memory, of myself cycling home in the dark, my body luminous yellow as if I’d gone swimming in the Stabilo fluorescent marker factory. I felt as if I’d been dipped in a huge jar of melasse, such that fallen leaves and feathers would stick to my skin, and I would leave smears on whatever I touched or whatever touched me. At other times my skin was burning, and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t red or covered in blisters. Yet in the portrait, none of that had happened yet. And look how beautiful and innocent I was.

My year three school portrait is missing. In fact, there are very few photographs of me at age thirteen and fourteen. I was actively avoiding existence, living the void I was feeling inside. Looking at the few existing pictures of that time is an alienating experience. I don’t look damaged or sad or filthy. My skin looks fine too, not sticky or red or fluorescent yellow. For lack of a better word, I look ‘normal’. There’s even one picture that may have been taken either before or after the abuse had started; I honestly can’t tell. Feelings are so deceptive. At age 12.96, I felt lightyears away from the beautiful and innocent girl I was at age 12.62. Yet in the pictures, I look exactly the same.

My year two school portrait is now on the cork board in my living room. It’s a reminder of me, of beauty and innocence, and of good times. This little girl is important to me. I am taking care of her when no-one else does.

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