By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Eight years ago Nevaeh Johnson had a rough first day of school.
The internet won’t let her forget.
A moment of childhood fear that reduced her to tears, a quick-acting photojournalist and the endless copy-and-paste nature of the world wide web turned the young Rockfordian into a meme seen by millions.
They call her the crying girl.
The image of her as a 5-year-old kindergartner cradling her head in her left hand, coloring with her right, while a tear rolls down her cheek has become a sort of shared expression of the feeling of overwhelming frustration.
Paired with the picture, captured in August 2014 by Max Gersh for the Rockford Register Star, are captions designed to draw a laugh from those who relate to the emotions Johnson wore on her face.
“I’m tired of witnessing once-in-a-lifetime historical events. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH,” one caption reads. “Kids in 2050 trying to study for the 2019-2022 history test,” another says.
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Valerie Johnson’s Facebook feed is filled with a common phrase from friends – “found another one” – as they share a seemingly endless supply of memes of Nevaeh.
“At first I thought it was embarrassing,” said Nevaeh, now a 13-year-old middle-schooler. “Now when I think about it, it’s pretty cool.”
Nevaeh’s blonde hair has faded a touch in the past eight years, and she no longer wears the cute bows that pinned her hair back in the picture. Now she spends her time playing basketball or hanging out with friends, and she dreams of playing in the WNBA or operating her own restaurant.
More than ‘funny pieces of information’
With respect to Rock-and-Roll Hall-of-Famers Cheap Trick, NBA All-Star Fred VanVleet and other famous Rockfordians, Nevaeh may have the city’s most recognizable face. Although few know it’s her when they see her picture, putting her in a sort of limbo between anonymous and famous.
“I’ve seen that picture so many times and I had no idea that it was a person from Rockford,” said Lauren Davis, a social media and marketing consultant for small businesses and personal brands.
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Memes, in general, are thought of as funny pieces of microcontent, Davis said, but they can also serve an important purpose in spreading information or giving people a sense of belonging.
“One of the things that memes do is they give people the ability to self identify with whatever is happening in the picture that has text on top of it,” said Davis, the owner of Lauren Davis Creative. “So sometimes it feels like these are just funny pieces of information, but really right in the center are basic human needs of belonging, and memes give us a space to feel like we belong.”
Nevaeh’s image and the resulting memes do just that, she said.
“They can see the look on the girl’s face and they can totally identify with how she’s feeling, and it gives people a feeling like they’re not alone,” Davis said.
Capturing the shot
The image itself was celebrated before it was famous.
The shot, made by Gersh for the Rockford Register Star during the first day of class at Conklin Elementary School, went on to win the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors sweepstakes award as the top news image captured in the state that year.
Years later, it started popping up in memes. A student photojournalist brought it to his attention after seeing the meme and his online portfolio.
“It’s a little surreal,” said Gersh, who is now senior visual editor for the Indianapolis Star. “I joke that that photo is the pinnacle of my career and it’s probably the most well-known image I made that nobody knows I made.”
The picture has also become a teaching tool for Gersh, who has been a full-time photojournalist for more than a dozen years. The first day of school, by most measures, was a routine assignment resulting in similar images year-in and year-out. But he said that photo shows that if you pay close enough attention you can make a great image anywhere.
“It kind of shaped my work ethic, actually, in a bigger way than I ever expected it to,” he said. “It made me kind of shift my perspective in how I would approach my assignments.”
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Now, Gersh is often tagged on memes by people looking to acknowledge him and give him credit for the photo.
“If you pay attention you can make a great image everywhere,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to find. It could be the crying kid.”
Nevaeh doesn’t remember much about the day the picture was taken, nor does she remember noticing the photographer.
“I was too busy coloring and crying,” she joked.
Her parents, Jeffrey and Valerie Johnson, had dropped her off at Conklin only to watch her unravel into tears. Nevaeh was fond of her preschool at Summerdale, and the new, bigger environment proved to be overwhelming.
Mom and dad watched over Nevaeh to comfort her as they waited for an opportunity to slip out the door and let their child tackle school alone.
“I was glad dad was there because I would’ve stayed the whole day,” Valerie Johnson said.
The first day fears faded fast.
“Eventually, the Johnsons quietly slunk out the door, and 5-year-old Nevaeh settled into her new class at Conklin Elementary School, tear-free,” Corina Curry wrote in an Aug. 25, 2014, article for the Register Star. “Moments later, she was singing and dancing with the rest of her classmates.”
Gersh, much like Davis, says the photo has a quality that people can instantly relate to.
‘There’s people that see that photo and say, ‘oh, poor girl,'” he said. “But then there’s people who realize we were all that kid: We were all sad and scared and trying to find comfort in our coloring or whatever that looked like for us.”
While the photo may have initially embarrassed Nevaeh, it’s now a point of pride.
“I’m glad she’s at a point where she can appreciate the humor of it,” Gersh said, “and we all can get a little smile out of that.”