–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–


by | Feb 7, 2024

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 determined (you had to be elected to work on the yearbook); while photos for it 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 – was designed to resemble the many popular daytime soap operas of the era.

Yearbook Themes: 1985 (left) and 1986 (right)

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 that lump together prepubescent children with teenagers. (Having experienced the latter through my daughter, I can attest that it is a godawful idea.) 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 too many photos of us.

Greasy hair? Check. Braces? Check. Faint beginnings of a dirtbag moustache? Check. What I looked like in 1981-1982.

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 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!”

Some of the signings from my eighth-grade yearbook.

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.

A random shot in the library (left), and Varsity tennis photos (center and right).

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 were determined largely by 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 class photos carefully, you could discern the entire sociocultural structure of the school from it.

Popular girls (aka “The Star Crew”) with their attendant males in the front three rows. “Greasers” (yes, we actually called them that) in the back right. Band posters and beer adverts galore. You’ll find me shirtless, with a gaudy tie and fedora, holding up a “Spinal Tap” sign, perched on one of my friend’s shoulders, in the middle, far right.

In the case of the senior portrait, what mattered most was (a) how you dressed/looked; and (b) what you wrote, and especially 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 stuff. One would stuff it with name-drops of bands, lyrics, inside jokes and secret messages, all abbreviated so only really decipherable to those in the know. Pity the poor, confused soul who thought it a good idea to put 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. Rock bands and lyrics? Check. References to girls dated/dating? Check. Opaque references via abbreviation to fun and delinquency? Check. Obligatory booze references? Check.

But the best thing about the yearbook, really, was the things your friends and teachers wrote in it. They were funny, vulgar, over the top, and sometimes very sweet. Years later, looking back, they remind this aging memory of all sorts of things: of great moments, crushes, and scandals. One reminds me of a friend of mine 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 to and from school, and who would regularly mock my hideous 1976 Dodge Aspen, in response to my awkward efforts at flirting. A fourth brings me back to a decadent trip to the then-Soviet Union, in 1985, where we drank vodka by the shopping cart and ate caviar with soup spoons and occasionally saw some sights.

A few of the signings from my Senior yearbook.

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