Power of a smile frozen in time

This Side Up


It happened at last year’s science fair, following a brief discussion with a student from TIMES² Academy about her project on emotions and how to detect happiness, sadness, boredom and anger by facial expressions.

She talked about her interest in human emotions and a bit about her dreams for after high school. She was outgoing and I knew I wanted to include her in the story I was working on.

Before snapping a picture, I asked her to show me a happy face. She obliged and the photo was one of several that appeared in the following Tuesday’s Beacon.

My reason for including the picture was to illustrate the inventiveness of our youth and science fairs have evolved from plaster of Paris volcanoes that erupt when filled with baking soda. It’s not that every student came up with something imaginative. There were a few projects lifted from the Internet, but what I found was most were the results of questions kids were asking of themselves.

That picture of the girl who read faces, however, served a purpose I never would have imagined until I talked with Mark Fontaine this year. He had the Beacon photo taped to his office wall. Fontaine teaches science at TIMES² and is director of the fair.

His story had me thinking how small acts of consideration can change lives, and how pictures, published ones in particular, can have enduring power.

Our refrigerator, like probably 90 percent of the refrigerators across the country, is festooned with photographs, cards and clippings. It’s a storyboard and a gallery of favorite people, dogs and places. Some color photographs have been bleached by sunlight and all the clippings are yellowed. One clipping is of our son Ted, when Providence Business News selected him as a rising star among less than 40-year-olds. The picture is a studio shot with that perfect lighting that prompts you to wonder if that could ever happen naturally. But that’s not its chief attraction. It is a display of our pride in his achievement that makes us feels good, whether he sees it or not.

From the book titled “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand, I learned of the unintended consequences of a picture clipped from a newspaper. The book is the remarkable story of Louis Zamperini during the Second World War. Before the war, Zamperini was a runner, a talent that brought him to the Berlin Olympics.

While he was flying B-24s, and before he ditched in the Pacific, friends from home sent him a clipping of a war bonds promotion. The drawing showed the Olympic runner, along with an inset of a B-24, and a description of what Zamperini was doing in the war. The message read, “They give their lives – you lend your money.”

According to Hillenbrand, Zamperini carried the clipping in his wallet and it survived more than 40 days while he was adrift before arriving at a Japanese-occupied island. With discovery of the clipping, the Japanese beat him and the only other survivor from the crash to make it to land. Zamperini could have destroyed it and not drawn attention to his identity, but he didn’t.

The story of the Beacon clipping is hardly as dramatic, although in a sense it, too, helped someone make a journey. The mere fact that a teacher clipped and displayed her picture must have said a lot to her. It was more than a time remembered; it was a declaration of confidence. Fontaine asked Saturday if I recalled the student. I did, especially how she lit up when I asked her for a happy expression.

Fontaine said the student had gone through troubling times. She was depressed and things weren’t working out. On one of those occasions, he pointed to the clipping. She remembered her science project and her mood changed. She smiled.

One wonders how a picture can have such power. They are touchstones to so many emotions. There are many iconic shots; like the sailor kissing the nurse on the streets of New York at the end of World War II; the woman on her knees at the Kent State shootings; Rosa Parks on the bus; Jack Benny with his violin; one Twin Tower in flames and an airline about to hit the second; the kids filing out of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. They are guideposts to our times, wonderful and horrendous.

On a personal level, clippings and photographs have a power that we take for granted until you hear a story like Fontaine’s.


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