by Rosemary Ruffenach, 5/18/08 • While May brings thoughts of romance, garden improvements, new fishing gear, or surcease of the primary campaign season to most Minnesotans, for me this year it means the yearbook advising assignment. Now, until recently, I hadn’t paid much heed to these trophies. Back in high school, I made sure my senior photo displayed me to proper advantage and that I was pictured in at least one extra-curricular activity (journalism). I purchased a copy and stored it away; not even my own children have looked at it since. Then several years ago, our school’s yearbook staff decided to include senior photos of their teachers. I could tell most students were puzzled when they saw mine. Could this be the same person? And what’s with the hair? More reason to keep my old yearbook in storage.
I began to think differently about yearbooks, however, when I started doing family history. As my aunt (my companion on the hunt for lost relations) and I were struggling to decipher a relationship, she would pull out her Robbinsdale High School yearbooks, circa late 1940s, so that I could put a face with a name—not that it helped determine whether a distant relative was a second cousin once-removed or a third. What it did help was in giving a physical presence to a name, allowing me to relate to the person at least a little bit.
At the same time, I was employed to write historical introductions to literary periods for a textbook publisher. As I went about my task, decade by decade I was forced to make decisions on what merited inclusion within the 1,600 words I was allocated. Was Carnegie Steel’s Homestead Mine strike more or less important than the invention of the elevator, which made skyscrapers possible? In a way, these were impossible questions, yet I had to decide. In so doing I became increasingly aware of the power of writers to shape their readers’ perception of history, especially those readers only tangentially interested in their heritage.
“History is written by the victors,” declared Churchill; but technically, history is written by those who hold the pen, and they are writers who work within the mainstream, and consequently, whose perspectives get published and widely distributed. This was reinforced for me as I read through the major publishers’ high school history texts in preparation for writing my own intros. These publishers design the big, (expensive) hard cover books to appeal to textbook selection committees in states that have statewide adoption. To sell their books, controversy and the dark stories of our collective past are downplayed, such as the Spanish American War and the long campaign against those fighting for self-determination in the Philippines, or the rampant greed of the so-called Gilded Age.
Which (finally) brings me back to the school yearbook. Coming to see them as a window into individual human histories as well as the culture of the times, I have become a yearbook advocate. Thus, I was mildly pleased to find it was my turn to take on the task of advising the yearbook staff. And, cognizant that the product could well be shown to some student’s second cousin-once removed fifty years hence, I was aware of the responsibility I bore. I couldn’t falter; I couldn’t fall. But I was ready—or so I thought.
Aware that the yearbook must present a well-rounded view of student activities, not just the Halloween costumes and the bowling tourney, I tried to apportion pages to academic subjects. But how do you make a page on individualized math classes interesting? There isn’t much photogenic about students struggling over equations. Maybe it was this conundrum that promoted its student designer to insert a photo of Bush with a question mark over his head onto the page.
On the lookout for secret messages within the candid shots, I found one of a student making a two-fingers-folded-in hand signal. The “Candids” page designer didn’t know what the signal meant, or so he said. His remedy for the problem was to insert a cartoon hoagie sandwich in the subject’s hand, though two fingertips still stood up, unattached to the sandwich. When questioned, said subject explained that he didn’t know what the signal meant “exactly,” but his favorite musician used the signal in performances. Great. I soon found another questionable photo: of a student exposing his tongue. Did he really want to page through the book at age 35 and encounter himself thusly? I asked. He did.
Then there is the unresolved problem of the yearbook cover. One girl suggested the school initials and “2007-08” in a logo that included a heart and a peace symbol accompanied by the slogan, “We are all one.” The boys were uncomplimentary. No way were they going to be associated with any hippie thing like that. So what would they suggest instead? Fractals downloaded from the internet. And what, perchance, are fractals? Design thingies that are broken-up geometric shapes that can be split into parts, each of which is sort of a smaller copy of the whole. To me they just look like floating bubbles, blobs and swirls. As an alternative, I suggested a Grecian theme, since some lucky students had toured Rome and Greece this spring. Oh no—too difficult to draw. How about some original work from the art class? Bor—ing.
Finally, the heart of the yearbook: student pictures, which actually should be the most straightforward of the pages. Not so. First of all, ours is an alternative school, so students come and go with dizzying frequency. Who should be included? Anyone who has attended anytime this school year, pronounced the school director. What if the student was only here a week? a day? What if we don’t have a photo of the student since his or her period of attendance didn’t include one of the two days during the year that Life Touch came in and took official portraits? Apparently our list of “Students Not Pictured” is going to run very long.
Compounding the problem of student pics is the question of who is to be included in the graduating seniors section—and we have plenty of seniors who aren’t graduating. How close to graduating do they have to be? Some of our partner schools say all credits have to be completed for a student to “walk,” some say all but two credits, others all but one. And then some students aren’t sure themselves if they’ll be down to the proper number within three weeks. If they’re not sure, how can the yearbook staff make the decision?
And finally, there is the baby picture situation. The yearbook staff nixed the inclusion of baby pictures of the graduating seniors, since it was done in last year’s edition. They wanted to be original. However, unbeknownst to them, a letter went out to parents asking for the pictures. At present, two weeks before the yearbook must be press-ready, a total of 10% have arrived, just about the same number of senior pictures that have floated in. The staff has come up with remedies though. For students who don’t turn in a senior picture, they will just use the Life Touch version, no matter how unflattering. To fill in for the missing baby photos, they’ll take ugly baby pics off the internet. That’ll show ‘em!
So now that I am better acquainted with the struggles of a yearbook staff and their hapless advisors, I think I’ll pull mine out of storage and give it another look.