In my younger days, I promised myself I would not become The Bemoaning Curmudgeon. You know, the middle-age/late middle-age geezer tossed into a crisis of values (or at least nostalgic protest) every time some new technological advance steps onstage to provoke a cultural shift in our expectations of self and each other.

I would tell my peers, “Please kill me if I ever begin a sentence with ‘When I was your age … .’ “

I’m losing this battle. Nobody told me how hard it would be to keep this promise. How sore the temptation would be to spontaneously curmudge (yes, I just made it a verb.)

Like this week, when a mother showed me school photos of her ninth-grade son. You know, the proofs they post online. You choose between a few shots, then you choose between packages of quantity and print size.

OK, back in my day (ouch), we didn’t have “online.” And we didn’t get to choose a shot. Our parents merely sent us to school begging us to smile and try to make a nice picture. But, no crisis. The basic ritual is thus far the same.

But now the mother shows me the website options. And, for more money, modern parents can “click” a request for … photo touch-up.

Bemoaning Curmudgeon battle lost. I surrender.

In the world of public education as I encountered it — ooh, that’s ever so much more dignified than “When I was your age …” — there was a near-universal rite of passage assigned to every student. This rite occurred as early as the sixth grade and no later than 10th. Usually between the seventh and ninth grades. It’s a rite called “Yea though I walk through the Valley of Dork.”

All of my peers have an iconic photo of their own Dorkdom.

I’m looking right now at my seventh-grade school picture. While my father had, by then, finally relented about my heretofore military crew cut (long hair on men actually terrified my parents), I look … really goofy.

I have ears that would make Dumbo proud. I’m gangly. I have freckles and a few grass fire patches of zits in various stages of eruption and healing. I have the face of neither a boy nor a man. My grin is moronic.

I look like … an ordinary Homo sapiens 12-year-old.

I am sojourning through the Valley of Dork. Geek. Dorkus. Goofball. A right-on-schedule pubescent prince.

I say “near universal.” Yes, every class has one or two students who miss this rite. A few win the genetic lottery and manage at every age to be attractive, handsome, pretty and well-composed. Just not most kids. Most kids mutate through this “Island of Dr. Moreau” stage that is just astonishing.
And beautiful. And dear. And important. Everyone has an Inner Nerd. But, during pubescence, the Inner Nerd has its freest rein.

“Focus on Their Smile” is the heading on the website, “retouching erases blemishes (do you mean zits?) and touches up that untimely scrape” (you mean that badge of honor from when I fell off my skateboard?)
For $6, you get Basic Retouching. It “removes blemishes.” For $12, you get Premium Retouching. It “whitens teeth” (I’m not making this up) “evens skin tone” (you have got to be kidding me) “and removes blemishes and scars.”

I’m dumbfounded.

So, they’re not delightfully nerdy human beings anymore. They are a canvas.

Ah, Pygmalion Parenting. We’ll all carve our wee ones out of ivory into ideal images.

I’m surprised that, for $25, there wasn’t Deluxe Retouching. Digitally removing braces, peach fuzz and the bump under the blouse of the telltale training bra strap. Fuller eyebrows. Longer Neck. Cleavage. More Roman nose.

The Self-Esteem Apocalypse is upon us. At least that’s how it will be sold. In truth, it’s the Parent Esteem Apocalypse.

Of the 87 or so messages this phenomenon is communicating to us and about us, it seems like 61 of them are at least odd if not deserving of our embarrassment. The remaining messages are, of course, communicated to our children. Like, “Never, ever think that being better looking isn’t the most important thing. So important, in fact, that it doesn’t matter if it’s an illusion.”

I like my kids’ faces. Their actual faces. It’s how I recognize them as my own.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Mondays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.