Home > Autofocus

Author: Lauren Gibaldi




The word is big, bold, and blue on the whiteboard, underlined three times.

“Family,” Ms. Webber, my photography teacher, says aloud, rolling the marker between her palms. “What does it mean to you? Who is in your family? How would you define family?” She looks around the classroom. “For your next photography assignment, I want to see your version of family.”

I shift in my seat, the squeaking of the chair sounding as loud as a siren. I look around and see everyone nodding and starting to jot down notes. My paper is blank; I’m not sure what family means. Not really.

“When’s it due?” Celine asks from the other side of the room, pencil tapping on the table.

Ms. Webber answers, “December, so you have two months, but it’s part of your final portfolio, so you’ll be balancing daily classwork and other projects as well. This is your first long-term project, and I really want you to focus on it.” She turns around and I swear she looks right at me. “I want you to impress me with it.”

I breathe in deep and can’t help but wonder if she knows how much this terrifies me.

“Okay, for the remainder of today’s class, I want you to start planning your photos and how you’ll present them—exhibit style, online, physical portfolio, et cetera. Go ahead and use the computers, or walk around for inspiration,” she says.

As soon as she’s done, chairs scrape the floor as they’re pushed out, conversations start, and I’m still here, in my seat, frozen. Because I have no idea what I’m supposed to do, what I’m supposed to focus on.

I sit for a few more minutes, then start to get self-conscious. I don’t want to look like I’m lost, so I head over to the editing bay—what we call the row of computers where we edit our photos—and look for the latest picture I’m working on for another assignment. It’s a photo of a bike, left alone on the side of the road. It looks like it’s been there a while, chain rusted and weather worn, and becoming part of the ground. I can lose myself in this project now, then figure out the family assignment later. I pull up Photoshop and get to work, changing the exposure and making the photo a little lighter, hoping to give it a more fantastical feel.

“So what do you think of the assignment?” Celine asks, sitting down next to me. Her slick dark hair is pulled into a low bun and I’m suddenly conscious of the frizz escaping my ponytail.

“I don’t know yet,” I admit, looking back to my computer. I’ve been in-class friends with Celine for three years, since starting photography my freshman year, but only this year, after my best friend, Treena, left for college, have we become closer. She knows why the subject makes me uncomfortable—I told her all about it over pizza after we had an assignment about secrets. Not that my adoption is a secret; it’s just not something I reveal every day to people.

“You’re gonna do it on your parents, right?”

“Yeah, of course,” I say, clicking the mouse absentmindedly. “I mean, they are my family.”

“I know, I know,” she says, swishing her hand. “I was just wondering if you ever thought about, you know, your real parents.”

Real parents. The words affect me more than they should.

Truth is, yes, of course I have. How could I not? I always wondered who the people were who gave me this frizzy hair, this bumpy nose. This penchant for biting my nails, and lactose intolerance. But I guess I never thought of them as family. Just, more as people who were part of my life long ago that I don’t know or remember.

But I don’t say all that. Instead I say, “A little, I guess” and leave it be. Because how can I describe the numerous Google searches without sounding just a little bit crazy? Treena understood, but that’s because I’ve never kept anything from her, and she went through it all with me. But I don’t want to go back there. “What about you?” I ask, changing the subject. “How are you going to fit in all seven hundred family members?” Unlike me, Celine has a large family of four siblings and numerous aunts and uncles and cousins.

“Ha,” she says, opening up her own photo to edit. I look over and see a picture of a dog, and though it sounds simple, the lighting is really great and the dog’s eyes shine. “I think I’ll just focus on my parents and brothers and sisters. They’re family enough. Did I tell you, my little brother tried to eat my last portfolio project? Like, I found it . . . in his mouth.”

“Oh god. I can’t imagine it tastes good.”

“Mmmmm, photo paper.” Celine chuckles and adjusts the lighting on her picture a little bit more. She’s a better photographer and Photoshopper than me, by a lot. Sometimes I wish I had her talent. “Anyway, I’m going to Java Jump after school, want to join?”

“Yeah, maybe.” I turn back to my computer screen and work on my photo some more. I don’t know if I’m making it any better or worse; I’m just changing it to keep myself busy. So when the bell finally rings, I quickly pack up my bag and start to head out.

“Maude.” I look up and Ms. Webber is standing by her desk, smiling. “Can you come here for a second?” My heart thumps as I mentally retrace all of my assignments, wondering if I turned something in late. Celine gives me a devilish grin and gestures toward our teacher. She’s used to being called up and reprimanded. Me . . . not so much.

When I get to her desk, she looks at the room, then back to me. I look around and see that most of the people have cleared out, except for a few still on the computers. We have a tendency to stay here during other classes. If she thinks we need it, Ms. Webber gives us an excused pass.

“I wanted to ask you if you’ve thought about the family assignment.”

“A bit.” I hate lying to her because she’s nice and she’s always here for us. She’s younger than most of the other teachers, with bright red hair, brown glasses, and a stare that penetrates you until you confess all of your secrets.

She nods. “Look, I know this must be a harder assignment for you, but I also think it’ll challenge you in ways other students won’t understand. I think, because of that, it will make you a better photographer.”

“You think?” I ask, a bit skeptical.

“Definitely. I just want you to know that I’m here, in case you have any questions.”

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