Friday, January 23, 2009

Reacquaintence and Identity: Miss Veach is a Peach

I had lost this photograph about 20 years ago. It's my first class picture. It's my Kindergarten class and was taken, as you can see on the menu board propped up in front of us, in 1976. And while I had managed to hold on to all my elementary school class photos for grades 1 through 5, I had somehow lost this one. But here it is again. One of my former classmates unexpectedly returned it to me by scanning their own copy of it and posting it on Facebook. I'm in the third row, third in from the left. I'm wearing what pretty clearly looks like a navy blue sweater with a stitched downhill skier on it.
I recently finished reading some essays about youth, digital media and identity. Most of them discussed how youth are exploring,expanding,probing and challenging their identities using new digital media production and distribution tools. The essays focused primarily on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace or YouTube where millions of youth are providing social scientists of every ilk with the meat of their tenure . I thought, if today's youth are busy with the basics of digital identity creation, how is Facbook (and that does seem to be the current hub for this activity) allowing my own generation to explore the history of their own identity? How are we using it to collectively explore who we once were and especially, what we've become?

The popularity of Facebook makes reacquainting simple. The rediscovery of so many people you had begun to expect you'd never hear much more about other than a passing word are suddenly reappearing and aggregating all sorts of personal information about themselves and putting it on display, a kind of show and tell. And I mean that in the most optimistic sort of way. I remember running into an old high school friend 10 years ago and listening in awe while she gave me the lowdown on who had married and those adventurous few from our class who had been brave enough to wade into the murky depths of parenthood. Now those very people are reorganizing digitally, their lives, their new middle-aged identities being haphazardly stitched together through status updates, photographs, article postings, groups joined, books read and videos posted. Quite a few of them are now firmly ensconced in parenthood. But your concept of them, of who they are and how they relate to you, draws from memories you formed 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. So there's this terrific little jolt when you learn a little about who that person has become. On Facebook, their profile picture usually offers the first clue. For many of these profiles, my own included, there's a picture of a child. Sometimes they're posing with the kid(s), a partner, or their family. They all say, "Here, at a glance, is what I've become." Sometimes people have gained a lot of weight.

There's a nice little nostalgia trade active on Facebook. Everybody is scanning old photographs and posting them. High school photos mostly, but family photographs too. They sometimes kick off little conversations. I wish there was more video. It's around, but rare.

This Kindergarten class photo, for obvious reasons, is the best and most endearing piece of the Facebook nostalgia trade that I've come across. I'm lucky to have nothing but the warmest memories of that class and Miss Veach, the Bea Arthur-like woman standing somewhat drably amongst us little munchkins and who was our teacher. Her personality was anything but drab though, even if her outfit from that day wasn't particularly flattering. I remember her being a woman in charge, and yes, her personality was even a bit like Bea Arthur's in Maude. She was Maude-like; bold, a touch acerbic but ultimately warmhearted and maternal at her feminist core. Many of us peed on the floor of her classroom, but I'm not going to name names. When I was in first grade I drew a picture that I was allowed to take across the hallway and deliver to Miss Veach. I don't remember what the picture was of though I did get to present it to her in front of her entire class. It all felt so heroic. After taking my picture, she put an arm around me and explained to her current batch of Kindergartners that I was one of her former students who had since ventured forth into the more refined elements of first grade.


Meta Megan said...

I had Miss Veach! Wow, what a great picture. I can't wait until someone in my kindergarten glass comes up with ours. Possibly Heather. This is a great essay.

Chris Breitenbach said...

Thanks Megan!