College graduation. I was busy shaking hands and shaking envelopes for money when I spotted my friend-slash-brother's-girlfriend-slash-future-sister-in-law across the room acting oddly.
She had something pinned to her lapel, and she was bouncing from guest to guest, smiling widely. Too widely. I felt my heart speed up.
Deadpan and sarcastic by nature, there was only one reason she would grin like that. She was up to something.
As I drew closer, I recognized it immediately, although to this day, I don't know how she acquired it: a photo of me, age 11, mouth jammed with braces, back-curled bangs, hair pulled into a two-layer low ponytail as to resemble a mullet. I was wearing white jeans and a sleeveless flannel shirt with a hood and playfully pulling on a hood cord.
It was me in all of my middle-school glory. Right in the bowels of the 10th circle of hell.
I had to kiss Mark during spin the bottle, and then Kit said my eyes were too big, and Ben said he wouldn't go out with me because I had braces, even though he got braces six months later. And then I went through this horrible cowgirl phase and then this more horrible gangster phase and then this mediumly horrible theater kid phase, but no matter how many times I reinvented myself, I never fit in with any of the groups. So I clung to a friend in this group and a friend in that, until I had built my own wobbly social web that was enough to keep me feeling connected, but always only by fragile threads.
All of that came pummeling at me, like a punch to the gut, when I saw that stupid pic.
It was so awkward, so forced, so desperate, so hopeful, so painful, so pleading, so needing, so lost.
So honest. So beautiful.
So while I hadn't set out to flaunt my sleeveless flannel to the dean of liberal arts (whom my friend was talking to when I ripped the photo off her shirt and shoved it down my pants where it would be safe), I was glad I had that picture. One of the few from that period in my life. I hated it as much as I loved it.
For many of us, the tweenage years aren't easy -- and they're not easy for the people around us, either. Because of that, it's tempting to want to just hold your breath and close your eyes until it's all over.
In fact, Boulder photographer Darcy Sherman (sassafraspics.com) says she has noticed a trend: The photos slow or stop when kids enter the so-called "awkward phase."
Parents tell her they want to wait. Until their kid gets her braces off. Until her skin clears up. Until he grows into those goofy-looking feet. Until he will actually smile for the camera. Until she realizes teal eye liner isn't flattering (it took me four years). It's almost as if you start ignoring your kids when they aren't as cutesy anymore, Sherman says.
You stop seeing them.
But she says that's a huge disservice to your kids; it projects a message that they're not OK as they are, that this phase in their life isn't worth remembering, because it's not perfect.
That's exactly why Sherman is drawn to it, though.
"Tweens are misunderstood and really underrepresented," she says.
Sherman, a former middle-school teacher and parent of an 11-, 13- and 17-year-olds, specializes in tween photography.
Her husband runs 25-year-old Boulder-based College Insights (collegeinsightstestprep.net), which is launching new, unique Transition Camps this summer. He will offer weeklong summer camps for middle schoolers to prep them for high school.
"We are on this, both professionally and personally," Sherman says.
Instead of being ashamed, overwhelmed or confused by this period of life, Sherman says she wants to celebrate and embrace it.
"I'm not celebrating acne. No one celebrates that," she says. "I want them to see beyond the acne."
She says she wants to celebrate the quirky style. The clothes that don't fit right, the pouty protests, the soulful eyes of a person trapped in the painful purgatory between childhood and adulthood, where you're neither one but a little bit of both.
Even the kid with 365 OOTD selfies on Instagram experiences something different when in front of a professional lens, Sherman says.
"All of the sudden, when you're not in control of the picture, I get all of these disclaimers," Sherman says.
Most girls criticize their appearance, and boys typically act "too cool," as if they don't care. Sherman sees both responses as protective walls -- because seeing yourself through someone else's eyes is vulnerable.
It's also validating, she says.
Selfies don't "bring out the soulfulness in them that somebody else can see," Sherman says. "You can see the troubles, but in a really beautiful way."
Sherman thinks the tween years are the most fragile.
"They definitely lay the groundwork for who we become as adults. They need to be looked at more closely," she says. "At the very least, they need to be embraced a lot more."
Even if they are sometimes a bunch of prickly, uncooperative, hormonal, sassy kids. Especially then.
As Sherman sees it, "any way we can bring some humanity to any group of people is a good thing."
She hopes her art does just that.
The story originally appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera.