Shelley Armenta
August 15, 2014 2:10 pm

Like most people, the thought of going back to high school was enough to make me nauseous. But when I became a school photographer, that is exactly what I found myself doing. Let me start by saying that being a school photographer is a hard job, a rewarding job, but a hard job. The equipment that I kept in my car to set up and break down every day weighed 300 pounds and was worth $25,000. Yet the one thing that terrified me more than anything else about this new job, was knowing that I would find myself back where I first experienced extreme amounts of stress and insecurity.

As nervous as I was, going back to high school, the experience turned out to be very cathartic. I was able to see things that my teenage self couldn’t, and so many of the beliefs that caused me the most grief during those years were dispelled when I was an observer and not a participant. Here are 5 takeaways I got from the experience:

1. Popular Girls Have Insecurities, Too

Every school has a group of girls who look as if they stepped out of an issue of Teen Vogue and directly into class. I was expecting these girls to sit in front of me and have a cover-worthy photo with no effort from either of us. I was not prepared for the overwhelming number of girls who would stand laughing and smiling with their friends in line, only to break down in front of the camera. Retakes were reserved for blinks and blurring, but I found myself taking photo after photo, trying in vain to get these girls to see their beauty. It was then that I realized that insecurity doesn’t discriminate; it can affect everyone, including the popular girls who have seemingly perfect lives.

2. High School Boys Aren’t Always As Confident As They Seem 

It may seem as if guys stand by unaffected by the insecurities that plague us girls, but as I said before, insecurity does not discriminate. I had just as many male students asking for multiple photo retakes. A surprising amount of guys even added their own money to what their parents paid so that they could have their picture Photoshopped. (Which is totally a thing done in school photography now, btw.) It never ceased to amaze me how these guys would walk up with this macho attitude, only to berate the way they looked when I would show them their photo.

3. Teenagers Actually Care About What Their Parents Think

When you’re a teen surrounded by your friends, sometimes it seems cooler to pretend you don’t care what your parents think. So many kids I photographed would talk about how dumb school pictures were while they were in line, only to sit down in front of the camera and recite a list of what their parents wanted to see in their photo down to the head tilt. One student even requested I retake her picture because she was smiling and her parents didn’t like her smile. Wait, what? Parents say that to kids? Apparently they do and their kids listen.

4. Drama Is Truly Everything

There is a reason that there are so many TV shows about high school. The drama is real and it loves teenagers. Listening to the conversations going on in the line for photographs was like watching a “Previously On” montage of a soap opera. It was crazy to hear how much time and energy was put into creating and feeding drama in these kids’ lives. But it also made me realize how often I had done (and let’s be real, still do) the same thing. I can’t even begin to imagine how radically different my high school career would have been if I had just focused on the good things in my life instead of giving attention to the bad.

5. You Don’t Have to Have It All Figured Out Before Graduation

Kids at every school I visited talked about how much stress they felt over college and tests. This was in the middle of summer before school had even started and they were already stressing out. There’s so much pressure foisted on teens to have their lives all planned out by the time they graduate. I know that I had many sleepless nights just trying to pick a major, or even a college. It is ridiculous to expect teenagers to have everything set in stone before they are handed their diploma, when up until that very moment, they had to ask permission to even use the restroom. In going back to school, I realized how hard it is to be a teenager, no matter who you are or when you were a student. I also realized that things get better if you can just hang in there.

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