In a merciful world, no parent would be forced to view such horror. But in the flaming hellhole of reality, I had no choice. I looked. And it was worse than I ever could have imagined.

My little boy's beautiful, angelic face was frozen, forever, into a grotesque death mask. His huge green eyes were now cruel slashes of black. His smile, once sweet and hopeful and so full of joy, had been replaced by a hideous grimace.

"Oh, the humanity," I sobbed. "How much did we pay for these damned school pictures, anyway?"

I'm not kidding. These were bad photographs.
My wife was waiting outside our son's kindergarten classroom the day they were handed out. Upon the last bell of the day, the boy ran to his mother in tears, waving the portrait envelope and wailing, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

Bear in mind that this is a youngster who previously had no idea that there was any such thing as good pictures and bad pictures. He thought they were all pretty much the same because he had no standard of measurement.

Well, now he has a standard.
So does his teacher. After class, she ran to my wife, as well, offering profuse sincere apologies and promising that the new photographs she'd already scheduled to be taken the next week would be far superior to the current batch. That wasn't hard for my wife to imagine, since the current batch could be used as promotional advertising for Night of the Zombie Grade-Schoolers.

Now, this may sound like a case of common, everyday parental overreaction, but there's a lot at stake here. Consider these facts and figures:

We have approximately 9,762 relatives demanding both wallet-size and eight-by-ten copies of our son's very first school portrait.

Roughly 9,749 of those relatives have never met the boy and have no idea that, in actuality, he's almost as drop-dead gorgeous as his father.

About 9,726 of those relatives are getting up in years and could easily croak while under the woeful misimpression that they are blood kin to a five-year-old side show attraction.

Each of our 9,762 relatives owns a refrigerator and, presumably, refrigerator magnets, which means that our son's school picture is destined to be put on display in kitchens all over the country.

If each of our kinfolk has average-size American families (2.8 persons), we're talking 27,333.6 relatives and near-relatives who'd gag at the sight of my kid whenever they passed their own icebox.

If each of them welcome only three visitors into their homes within the next year, 82,000.8 total strangers could also come in direct visual contact with the offending portrait.

27,333.6 + 82,000.8 = 109,334.4
Since there are 86,400 seconds in a day, simple mathematics reveals that every .7902 seconds, someone somewhere in America would be staring slack jawed at my son's Quasimodo photo and gasping, "Oh, my! What an unfortunate child!"

Alas, it wouldn't end there. One bad school picture can destroy your entire life. Even one that's okay can haunt you into adulthood. I know. I write from experience.

I was home feigning illness the day my fourth-grade school pictures were taken. So I posed on another day, for another photographer who was more fond of extreme close-ups than his predecessor. As it turned out, the picture looked fine . . . until it was pasted into the school yearbook. Next to all the head-and-shoulder portraits of my classmates, my all-cranium shot made my noggin look like something out of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. For the next two years, I was known as "Balloonhead Burkett."

Wait. There's more. Almost three decades later, I happened to run into an old grade-school chum. After a very pleasant conversation, he turned to leave, then stopped. "Say . . . didn't you used to have, like, a really big head? What happened? It looks fairly normal now. Did you have surgery or something?"

As you can see, parental overreaction in this situation is virtually impossible. In Japan, I've heard, mothers and fathers commonly kill themselves over bad school pictures as a matter of honor. In some Middle Eastern countries, they simply behead, behand and befoot the photographer, which seems like a much more reasonable solution to me.

Of course, I have no intention of going that far. At least, not until I see next week's retakes.

Some of our relatives could croak while under the misimpression that they are blood kin to a five-year-old side show attraction.

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Michael Burkett