High school kids have no idea how good they’ve got it. Sure, trying to find jobs in a flatlined economy is like combing for lice on the head of a bald man. And college loans saddle people with the kind of debt that could cripple a small country, one where the locals eat weird-looking seafood and wear funny hats.

But they get to pick which senior portrait appears in their yearbooks, which makes me a very jealous man indeed.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, brought on by the onset of digital photography. Back in my day ”“ an old fuddy-duddy phrase if ever there was one ”“ we didn’t have that luxury. It’s weird to have grown up in an era that already seems antiquated and lame, the stuff of bell bottoms and teased poodle-hair, but portrait day at school was a lot like a first date: We either made a good impression and immortalized a lasting memory, or else we had spinach in our teeth and came across as graceless chumps. Not that I’ve experienced this. Ever.

Each year, it was the same story. While most people in our class were typically clad in garb befitting a mandolin player in a metropolitan subway, portrait day inspired kids to dig their Sunday best out from underneath amorphous laundry piles on their bedroom floors. Suddenly, everyone was dressed like they had an important job interview at Goldman Sachs, all sparkle and polish. The girls were particularly shiny, decked out in necklaces and earrings and kaleidoscopic dresses. It was like going to school inside a giant disco ball, only with more acne and less Kool & The Gang. And there was something electric in the air, a change in atmosphere that ratcheted the already-high intensity level up by about 10 degrees. If a normal school day was a laid-back soak in a lake of pheromones, this picture-centric event was a frenetic dog-paddle through an oceanic riptide.

Damn, we looked good.

And the reason was simple: This was our one shot. Yes, we could have our portraits re-done if we weren’t happy with the first one, but that was our absolute final chance, a veil-thin safety net. Ideally, we wanted to get it right the first time, or else our yearbook pictures would be all closed eyelids and drooping mouths, cowlicks gone awry. That’s great if you want to show people what you look like hungover in your breakfast nook over uneaten toast, but that’s not what we wanted. We wanted glamour. And candy. And the ability to make farting sounds with our armpits. But mostly glamour.

That’s what lent such a sense of urgency to the sessions. We’d file one-by-one into a classroom-turned-studio, cleared of desks to make way for big-deal lighting equipment and backdrops, and as soon as we sat on our stool we’d grope frantically for our model face: That neutral, half-smiling middle ground between certifiably happy and stoned out of our minds.

Every once in a while the photographer, always a bored-looking soul, would re-do our photo on the spot if it was really obvious that something was amiss ”“ an ostentatious blink, a malfunctioning piece of equipment, or, more rarely, an ill-timed alien invasion. Otherwise, the pressure was on to get it right. Remember, this was pre-digital. If any aspect of our portrait fell short ”“ maybe a bra strap was showing, or stray hairs dangling on our forehead conspired to make a swastika ”“ the photographer wouldn’t know it right away. There was no way to check. We had our pictures snapped, and then there was this weird, month-long waiting game while the film was developed and the prints sent back to the school. Kids buzzed excitedly on the day the sealed envelopes arrived, because when you opened the flap and reached for the wallet- and wall-sized treasures within, it was the ultimate unveiling. You got to find out if all the fuss was worth it. If it wasn’t, you were saddled with a picture that made you look like a half-drunk space cadet with wispy sideburns and Hitler hair.

Now allow me, dear reader, to reveal something about we here at the Journal that you may not know: We’re all werewolves. Kidding. No, we in the newsroom process and edit all the headshots for the top 10 graduating seniors in each of the high schools we cover, prepping them for publication. Sometimes it’s the top 10 percent. That means sifting through an awful lot of photos, and each one is a reminder of how much times have changed. No longer is each portrait a stiff, wooden-faced affair in front of an inoffensive backdrop resembling the faux marble veneer of a bank. The shots are hugely varied now. Seniors strike cover model poses in front of ivy-lined rock walls; hold bowler hats to their heads on windy days in perennial gardens; pose nonchalantly with acoustic guitars as they sit cross-legged on stone steps abutting river embankments. Cobble enough of these portraits together and you could make a calendar, “Cool Kids of the Northeast: A Study in Confidence.”

And why shouldn’t they be confident? They know exactly what their shots will look like. They can pick and choose. “Oh no, sir, not the one where I’m wearing a kimono and sucking on a lollipop as I stroke my cat. Let’s go with the one that shows me in a propellor hat while I puff on a bubble pipe and ride a unicycle.” For the rest of their lives, these students will be cracking open their senior yearbooks and saying to their children, “Ah, yes, I remember Chet. This is him, here. You can tell he was a prankster by the way he’s got those swizzle sticks dangling from his nostrils.”

It’s a perk of the digital revolution, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little jealous. The safety net is much thicker now, the photos much more personal, and that’s a nice luxury to have. Still, I can’t help the feeling that something’s been lost. It’s the anticipation, I think ”“ the waiting that itches in the back of the mind like a splinter, the Christmas morning feeling of unwrapping the unknown. I guess every generation becomes nostalgic for the way things were “in their day,” and there’s a melancholy in knowing you can’t go back. But in a way, there’s something kind of nice about that. The wistfulness means there was something valuable about the experience of high school; the 18-year-old punk in that old senior photo grew up to be a man who didn’t take it for granted. That’s what a senior photo, or any photo, ultimately is: A marker of time, a yardstick by which we measure ourselves against a past.

If that past reveals some questionable choices involving a top hat and monocle in the rubble of an old mill, well, hey. At least your eyes weren’t closed.

— Jeff Lagasse is a staff writer and columnist for the Journal Tribune whose senior photo makes him look like a pubescent stockboy for a pizzeria. He can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 319 or [email protected]