The Novelist and arts critic John Berger writes of photography as an event captured in and of a time. He asserts that photography will always be linked to history, a moment, an instant. There is amazing beauty and artistry in capturing a moment, and one of the gifts of a photograph is not only what it represents but what it conjures.
I remember when the cry went out at the end of each school year, “The yearbooks are here! The yearbooks are here!” Everyone opens the books right away…and breathes. Mmm…fresh ink on plastic paper…mmm! The new-car smell has nothing over that of a new yearbook.
Even so, there is no time to waste. The empty pages and margins beg for more ink—missives, signatures, future plans and memories in the barely legible handwriting of my peers. “Stay the way you are” or “Have a great summer” or…”life” or…”time at college” or…”time in the Army” or “in the ‘pen.’” There’s the swirling floral handwriting of cheerleaders and flute players, sometimes a flower or a heart to dot the “i.” Is she telling me something? Is she my secret admirer? Is it too late?
Stephanie wrote, “We’ll always have journalism.” Yes, yes, we will. But what exactly had we had? Did I miss something? Did we ever really have journalism?
Some kid writes, “Remember when…” and then goes on to remind me of something I’m desperate to forget. My mom can never see that page. And confessions: “That was me, ha ha” or “I love you” with no signature and then comparing that handwriting to every other signature. Teachers scribble “Good luck” or “A joy in class” or The world needs ditch diggers, too.”
Almost all the group pictures are staged. Back when language arts consisted of German, Spanish and French, the photo is of guys wearing lederhosen posing with steins, next to a flamenco dancer, next to a guy mocking the guillotine, and the yearbook staff wearing their dads’ fedoras with cards stuck in the trim ribbon proclaiming “Press.”
There’s the chess club and debate team angrily fist-waving, trying to make their pursuits look action-packed…a drama club picture, with evenly spaced nuns and explorers focusing on something in the distance, one of them pointing…and yer another photo aptly titled “The Rocket Club Is Looking Up.”
One page lists the pop songs or the newsworthy events. Another page features the groundskeepers and lunch ladies. It’s nice to see them smile.
There are photos of pep rallies; the Sadie Hawkins dance, where the girls invited the guys, everyone in overalls and polka-dot blouses, blacked out teeth and straw everywhere; and the prom pictures: “Cutest Couple” and “Most Likely to Succeed.”
In the index at the back of the book most students had but one page number, the one for their class picture. All the guys had gone to the same barber and it shows. We called it “hockey hair,” the prequel to the “mullet,” designed to fit a hockey helmet tight to the skull leaving nice length in the back. The girls had their hair “up” or curled. I remember my sister working a curling iron like a Stradivarius.
Our school’s mascot was the oriole, so every team photo was accompanied by an artist’s rendition of the bird playing that sport—a football oriole with one outstretched wing and a ball under the other; a wrestling bird with huge biceps in a unitard, crouched and ready; birds that could dribble a basketball, drive a golf ball 300 yards, steeplechase and, of course, an oriole with hockey hair.
I wasn’t that keen on being represented by a small songbird until my friend Linda showed me her dad’s old yearbook. He graduated high school in 1945 and his school’s mascot was the A-bomb. Every senior picture was framed in a mushroom cloud. I was happy we were the Orioles.
The first night with my new yearbook I carefully read each page, every note. I make a list of people that need to add a message. Even though I still have weeks to go before school is out, I get a wave of longing. Something has come and gone, some of it beautiful, some of it embarrassing, some of it frightening. But whatever it is, it will remain on these plastic pages. Even the friendships that last beyond summer will have to change.
I finally come to the pages of teachers.
There is the shop teacher…industrial arts. He was an ex-marine and every day he’d come in with a story to help “straighten us out.”
One time he told us, “Boys, I was in the big one—Korea—and one day I was walking down a road and I saw a hand, just a hand. And in that hand was a sandwich. Did I eat that sandwich? Yes, I ate that sandwich. Best darn sandwich I ever ate!”
We were terrified of this man. The shop teacher also taught sex education.
In 1858 Minnesota became a state. I learned that from Mr. Hubschen. He was one of those “date and place” teachers. He didn’t want to be your friend. He just wanted you to learn. Every Tuesday we had a “surprise quiz.” He’d ask 10 questions. One was always a “gimme,” like “Name one of the seven dwarfs.” One of my favorite lectures was when Mr. Hubschen told us about the Civil War. It seemed like a firsthand account. Maybe it was and, thankfully, there was nothing about a hand with a sandwich.
A week after I got my trumpet, Mr. Sand, the band director had to have a talk with me.
“Kevin,” he said, “there are many other avenues of artistic expression that you might explore.”
“Kevin, you can’t stay in the band.”
“But, sir, I can’t join choir because I’m tone deaf.”
“Yes,” he said, “I know.”
“But there’s a song in my heart. It’s trapped and tone deaf, and has no rhythm, but it’s there.”
He softened and gave me last chair in the band.
One time we were invited to a parade in Milwaukee. There were bands from all over the country. I looked up front at our drum major, size 15 boot, in an all-white uniform. With his white beefeater hat, he looked like a giant Q-tip. We lined up and suddenly an official jumped in front of our drum major.
“Hold it, hold it,” he said. “Bring ‘em in.” And we watched as they escorted the 40-horse Clydesdale team in front of our band—amazing, majestic, imposing beasts pulling a large wagon of beer and barrels…and no cleanup crew…which meant we’d be marching down the middle of Milwaukee in 98-degree heat, our wool uniforms heating up and the 40-horse fun factory mining every step of our way.
Mr. Sand handed out salt pills. “Take these only in case of an emergency.” We all immediately took the salt pills.
“Keep your heads high,” he said.
Just before the judging table, the front-row flute section hit something slick on the pavement. Gone…but just as fast, they were up again, one player missing a flute but “miming” the instrument.
“Now!” shouted Mr. Sands. “We’ve trained for this!”
We hit the judging area, heads high. After the parade, Mr. Sands came around to everyone. I looked down at what once was a spotless spat.
“Throw ‘em away, son, throw ‘em away. You did good, boy, real good.”
I think of the gifts these teachers gave us. I loved English class. When we studied Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey, we learned Odysseus received a gift—a bag that held the west wind, at one point using it to get home. To me, a great gift, like that of Odysseus, gets you home. It’s given with love and it stays with you until it’s needed, like an answer waiting for its question.
The gifts in my yearbooks—1972, 1973, 1974 and 1975—have lived on long past the ink and plastic pages.
Kevin Kling is a well-known playwright and storyteller, and his commentaries can be heard on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” His play sand adaptations have been performed around the world.