When I was a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, I was one of the editors of our school yearbook. We used the school darkroom to print every photograph in the book by hand, a massive task. My fingernails smelled like chemicals for months, and my eyes, I was sure, had permanently adjusted to the dark. There were eight of us, six girls and two boys, whom we called the “sex toys,” as if any of us had ever seen such a thing. Saint Ann’s had (and continues to have) the reputation of an artsy school, and we did our best to keep it that way. We divvied up the tasks with the guidance of our photography teacher, Heather, whom we trusted because she sometimes snuck cigarettes in the school building after hours.
Somehow it fell to me to take a photograph of our founding headmaster, Stanley Bosworth, for the front of the book. The picture I took of Stanley was unremarkable—he is leaning against the building, looking slightly off into the distance. He’s wearing a plaid sports jacket, and the frames of his eyeglasses are tinted. He looks like an owl crossed with the hero of a seventies French film, and that’s just how Stanley was. He had founded the school in 1965 and had been its fearless leader ever since. I printed the photograph on the same paper as a photograph of the school building, so that the building and Stanley would be together forever. I certainly couldn’t imagine one without the other. The limestone lines of the beaux arts building zigzag across Stanley’s plaid jacket, and come to a point over his head; he is the mermaid on the prow of the ship, hands behind his back, always at ease.
Stanley loved the photograph. One evening, when I was alone in the darkroom, Heather passed me a piece of paper, told me it was top secret, and that she would take it back when I was through reading it. It was Stanley’s letter, which was to run opposite the photo in the yearbook, and it was addressed to me.
This was thirteen years ago, and I only read it the one time. I reread the edited version only very recently, after Stanley’s death. Reading what we finally ran in the yearbook, I can guess where my name appeared in the original—“In a way, the very personal message I was sent by this portrait of me reflects upon the Class of 1998 as much as it does upon my feelings.” He goes on: “This photograph is an inspiration because never before have I felt so much part of this school. It honors me because the art, which is our heritage in its broadest sense, touched me. It matters because the yearbook in which I am so represented commemorates a class in which sensitivity, art and inspiration reign supreme.”
As instructed, I never told a soul. I thought about it often over the years and eventually developed two theories, both of which seemed equally possible. My first theory was that Stanley had written a version of the letter for every member of the senior class, one tailored to their various talents and idiosyncrasies, and that we all had had that gorgeous moment of feeling perfectly appreciated and understood. My second theory—the one I believe is correct—is that Stanley did make everyone feel that way, but not specifically in letter form, delivered by the photography teacher.
Two weeks ago, I went to Stanley’s memorial service at Saint Ann’s Church. The crowds were so big that people spilled over into the Parrish Hall next door or listened to the audio feed from the school building, one block away. Seventeen people spoke, some of them famous, some of them famous only to the Saint Ann’s universe. It was the fourteenth speaker, screenwriter and Saint Ann’s alumna Akiva Goldsman, who finally said what I’d been waiting to hear: “Is there anyone here who Stanley didn’t make feel like they were the smartest of all?”
After the service, we all trooped back to the school, to the building that I had juxtaposed Stanley with. It’s been renamed the Bosworth Building, in his honor. My husband and I chatted with people in the lobby, then took the elevator up to the very top of the building, the twelfth floor, and slowly made our way back down, the scenic route. It seemed apropos, to make the whole thing take as long as possible. It had been two months since Stanley’s death from Alzheimer’s and several years since I’d seen him in person. I made it through the day without crying, largely because I kept expecting Stanley to walk through the door, always the most magnetic person in the room, and I wanted to look my best for him.
Stanley ended his note to our class with this:
“Perhaps one day I shall be so completely facade that I will no longer be recognizable. If such be the case, then this year—vital, eloquent, and exciting—is all the more sacred. Thank you, Class of ’98, in which I shall be forever morphed.”
I am fairly positive that it was my name within the commas of that final sentence, though it wasn’t really me Stanley was talking to. It was the idea that any student with two hands could learn how to work a photo enlarger, and that anyone who could learn how to work a photo enlarger would suddenly have a vast vocabulary with which to express themselves. It was at Saint Ann’s that I learned how to print photographs, and also how to make them, how to hold onto them, and how to see myself differently. I think all of us who were there when Stanley was roaming the halls would say the same—that if you took x-rays of our bodies, you would see Stanley standing there, arms akimbo, half a smile on his face.
Emma Straub is the author of the short story collection Other People We Married, which will be available from Riverhead Books in February. Follow her on Twitter @emmastraub.