by Daniel A. Kaufman


It was a big deal that time of the year, when our high school yearbook came out. In truth, it was a big deal all year: when the staff was being elected; while photos were being taken; and as the year’s theme was worked out. 1984’s was, well, 1984. 1985’s was Mad Magazine, adopting the popular spoof mag’s style and tone, and 1986’s – my senior year’s – was designed to resemble the popular daytime soap operas of the era.

Yearbooks actually began for us in Junior High School, which in my day (1981-1982) included grades 7 and 8, rather than the “middle schools” one finds now, which lump together pre-pubescent children with teenagers. (Having experienced both, the latter through my daughter, I can attest that this combination is a disaster.) Junior High yearbooks were thin, pitiful affairs, 12- and 13-year old’s not yet sufficiently invested in social cliques, sports, or school activities for there to be much to write about, and generally looking too awful (frequently with a mouthful of braces) for anyone to want many photos of us.

My seventh-grade yearbook wasn’t signed by a single friend or acquaintance. This changed in eighth grade, where you can begin to see some of the juvenile (though often hilarious, sometimes charming, and even at times clever) prose and trash talking that wouldn’t fully bloom until high school. Some examples:

“Dear Crotchman, Go screw yourself. Keep it up.”

“Dear Danny, When Hoffman told me I was sitting next to you, I felt sick to my stomach. But you turned out to be a great kid.”

“Dear Danny, You have the weirdest way of signing yearbooks, but at least you did it nicely. I forgive you for hitting me with the bat. You know, you’re funny! Have a terrific summer. See you in the big one next year!”

“Dear Danny, We have been friends for over 10 years and have had some really great times together. I hope that we remain friends for a long time to come and that we are in many high school classes together. Just kidding. Actually, I think that you are a stupid schmuck who’d do us all a favor if you jumped off a bridge and drowned to death.”

“Danny, I believe signing books is stupid, so if you sign this book, you’re an asshole!”

In high school, the photos were among the most important elements of the yearbook, and how many there were of you in a particular edition depended on a number of factors: To what clique did you belong? (The more popular, the more photos.) Were you good looking, and did you have a good sense of style? (The better you looked, the more photos.) Did you play varsity sports or were you involved in other school activities, clubs, etc.? (Athletic teams and extracurricular activities had their own dedicated yearbook pages.) Were you an upperclassman? (The older you were, the more photos.) And so on.

But the two biggest deals, photos-wise, were only available to seniors: a spot in the class photo that took up both pages of the front and back inside-covers; and the senior portrait, where one was given a high word-count “blurb” to add beneath your picture. What mattered the most in the class photo was your position, outfit, and prop, all of which aligned with your clique. The popular kids tended to be front and center, the more niche but cool kids, in the back and on the edges, and everyone else – nerds, geeks, and randoms – wherever else. The popular kids wore the most expensive and chic styles – at the time, this meant Benetton, Calvin Klein, Guess, Capezio, Reebok, and the like – the niche crowd tended to sport “genre” clothing and hairstyles – the specifics dependent on which niche one was in – and the nerds, geeks, and randoms typically wore polo shirts, jeans, and sneakers. As for props, the most common were posters of the bands and musical artists that were popular among one’s clique. Indeed, if you were to scan these photos carefully, from year to year, you could decipher the entire sociocultural structure of the school from them.

In the case of the senior portrait, what mattered most was (a) how you dressed/looked; and (b) what you wrote, and specifically, how cryptic it was and the extent to which it successfully conveyed that you had a lot of cool friends and had done a lot of cool things. One would stuff it with name-drops of bands, lyrics, inside jokes and secret messages, all abbreviated so as to be decipherable to those in the know and to give an impression of awesomeness to those not. Pity the poor, confused soul who thought it a good idea to put in a famous or literary quote or even worse, the sad sack who had no blurb whatsoever. A good photo may have been necessary in order not to come across as a loser in your senior portrait, but without the right blurb, it was all for naught.

My senior portrait. Bands and lyrics? Check. References to girls dated/dating? Check. Opaque references via abbreviation to various fun and delinquencies? Check. Obligatory booze references? Check.

But the best thing about the yearbook was the things your friends and teachers wrote in it.

Dear Danny, I can truly say that you are one of the people I’m really going to miss. I think you are a really special person and a true sweetheart. Mr. Karp actually had a purpose in life and that was having a class we could both be in to become friends. I want to wish you the best of luck in everything you do and you just better keep in touch or I’ll just have to rid you of all those parts of your body that you cherish so much!

Dear Commie (just kidding), we have had some good times and some bad times. Good times: Russia, Russian parties, Stolichnaya, Limonnaya. Bad times: Russian mornings. Get very drunk this summer. Don’t disappoint me!

Dear Danny, well what do you say to someone who saved your life? Seriously, I can’t thank you enough for that. Anyone else would have left me there!

They were funny, vulgar, over the top, and sometimes very sweet. Decades later, they remind this aging memory of all sorts of things: of tremendous moments; of great crushes; and of terrible scandals. One reminds me of a friend who passed out from the heat in the front row of a Billy Idol concert and whom I carried out of the theater. Another brings to mind a lab partner, who would blurt out invented, vaguely Spanish-sounding words in the middle of class for no discernible reason. A third recalls a wisecracking girl to whom I used to give rides home from school and who would mock my turd-colored 1976 Dodge Aspen, in response to my efforts at flirting. A fourth brings me back to a decadent school trip to the then-Soviet Union, in 1985, where we drank vodka by the shopping cart and ate caviar with soup spoons and pretty much all hooked up with one person or another. (And saw some sights, here and there.)

The best thing about the yearbook, in short, is that it reminds me of what it was like to be young and vital and alive at a time when life simply was magic.


10 responses to “Yearbook”

  1. s. wallerstein

    It’s an age of great innocence, of illusions and expectations. I immediately think of the lines from the Bruce Springsteen song, Human Touch.

    In the end what you don’t surrender
    Well, the world just strips away.

    That seems to sum up adult life, especially as one gets older. So one looks back on being a teenager as a golden age, although it was a golden age based on illusions, as all golden ages and utopias are.

    I don’t have any yearbooks. My mother must have thrown away my junior high school and high school year when my parents moved. She threw away almost everything that I had left there when I went to college.

    My sister pointed out a few years ago that our high school yearbooks are online. I looked at mine. I was completely out of it in high school, so a girl from the yearbook committee called me to ask for information for my profile. I glanced around the room, at the globe on the desk and by chance focused on Ethiopia, then telling her that I played the ethiopian flute, which she then included in my profile along with the fact that I was a member of the debating club and was a “wit”, according to her perception.

    Happy Good Friday!!!

  2. Can’t agree with your assessment I’m afraid. Perhaps your youth was based in illusions, but mine was not.

  3. terranbiped

    The idyllic Happy Days personified albeit without the saddle shoes and poodle skirts, and obviously just as white. Completely the antithesis of my experience. High School to me was nothing more than a place to go and an obligation to bear. I was completely devoid of any school spirit. I wasn’t aware if there even was one. No one I knew wrote any inscriptions in each others year book. I’m not even sure if I was in the graduating year edition.

    I’m glad you lived the experience and enjoyed that typical slice of Americana but I can’t say that I envy you. I was just extremely relieved to graduate and get out. The parade passed me and my circle of friends by and I’m not sure there ever was a parade to begin with.

    Great writing by the way.

  4. I was not trying to evoke envy, nor do I desire it. The piece was a heartfelt reminiscence and a snapshot of a time and place.

  5. After a private conversation with Terranbiped, I am inclined to think I misinterpreted his comment. I still find the “white” characterization gratuitious and strange considering that we had any number of black students, many of whom belonged to the most popular cliques, and the “white” students were overwhelmingly Jewish, many from Holocaust survivor families.

    Regardless, I’ve deleted my earlier reply and reopened comments. I would just ask readers when commenting, to consider the genre the piece in question belongs to. Personal reminiscences, delivered in photo-essay form are not argumentative. There is no thesis. They are slices of life and of times and places, and writing them is something that particularly resonates with me now; more so, since my dad died.

  6. Gottlob+Frege

    This is great Dan, and your observations about the comments in yearbooks is, in my memory, spot on. And status, and your place in the different groups, was largely determined by clothes and fashion. Although I grew up in a blue collar area in south Tacoma, my high school was right on the edge of a much more wealthy suburb called Fircrest.

    The Fircrest kids had a lot more money and fashionable clothes. I smile thinking about it now, but my friends and I showed our rejection of all that by wearing bib overalls. So, we ended up looking like a bunch of hick farmers from North Dakota. But there was also a fair amount of blending, so it was not unusual to see the Fircrest kids shooting the breeze with some fella in overalls.

    Thinking about it now, it was also a time when part of the blending between groups involved intelligence and a nascent cultural and intellectual desire. I clearly remember a new friend from the north end handing me a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five and telling me I should check it out. After we worked our way through Vonnegut’s oeuvre, we somehow got into Hermann Hesse and I read several of his books. Carlos Castaneda was also a bit deal during that period in the mid 70s, and we had many discussions about whether it was legit or just bullshit. This debate also involved folks from different cliques.

    Anyhow, I, too, regard it as a magical time in my life, and thanks for bringing some of it back to me.

  7. The past is always magic from the perspective of today. Magic because it didn’t happen the way we remember, and so is new as an anticipated past.