The Yearbook Myth

One commercial that stuck with me from the time I first saw it as a kid until I became a teenager was an ad for McDonald’s entitled “Great Year!”  It features the antics of Central Junior High School’s yearbook staff as they attempt to cover all of the great and crazy things that happened during the course of the school year and then meet at McDonald’s to celebrate their success.

Watch the minute-long ad and you’ll see a portrait of a junior high school that in 1983 or whenever it was originally shot had to be the coolest place on Earth.  Everyone gets along, someone walks through the hallway dressed as a strawberry, and even the high pressure moments are filled with a goofiness that only comes when you are selling hamburgers.  I don’t have to do much to convince anyone that my junior high experience was not really like this.  Had “Great Year!” been a real reflection of what I remember, there would have been footage of a gym teacher cutting gum out of someone’s hair, two guys blowing snot rockets all over the school store while the people who worked there gagged and yelled at them to stop, and one kid looking scared out of his mind while another threatened to beat the ever-loving snot out of him if he did even the slightest thing wrong.  Or maybe that’s just my take.

To be honest, I was excited to go to junior high school.  When I graduated the sixth grade in June 1989, I remember being a little nervous about having eight different teachers each day and sharing a building with students from two other elementary schools, but I’d done all I could at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School and as I left behind its playground and cafetorium, I felt a certain rush in being able to say that I was going to be one of the older kids.  I don’t know how much older I was expecting to be, especially since I was headed to the same place as 249 other twelve-year-olds and as one of the nerdier kids in the class would be on the bottom rung, but walking into the vast blue-carpeted commons area on the night of orientation, I knew I wasn’t little anymore.

The SJH pin and Sayville Junior High money clip (or is it a bookmark?) that I received for honors during my time in junior high.

The end of seventh grade seemed to confirm that.  On one of the last days of school, the principal spent a couple of hours announcing names over the PA of those students who had received awards for citizenship, service, and academic achievement.  My stellar grades and role on the student council meant that I was called down three times.  I received a certificate, a pin that said “SJH” and a money clip that had the school seal with “Sayville Junior High School” written on it.  Such awards and honors are not usually why one attends school, but I took pride in my achievements.  So much pride, in fact, that when it was announced that my eighth grade year would be my last one in junior high because the 7-8-9 junior high was going to become a 6-7-8 middle school, I wanted to contribute to commemorating Sayville Junior High and signed up for the yearbook staff.

Yearbooks in 1991, especially those produced for middle grades, weren’t the professional-looking tomes of photojournalism that high schools produce today.  These were glorified scrapbooks that didn’t offer much of a glimpse into the history of Sayville Junior High, except to say that certain students attended and some wore Z. Cavaricci pants.  But if you really think about it, only the CSPA cares about a yearbook’s being an accurate historical record that will one day be studied by anthropologists.  Most of us who shelled out the $40 or so for our junior high yearbooks did so in order to see pictures of our friends, write funny messages on the end sheets and autograph pages, and maybe deface people’s photos.

I don’t know how many staffs think ahead to the beating their carefully crafted layouts and designs take when the student body gets hold of the yearbook.  I certainly didn’t.  I wanted to help make the book look really cool, even if my use of Helvetica on the boys soccer page wasn’t exactly awesome.  But I had missed out on getting involved with everything except for student council in seventh grade and being on yearbook was one way I saw to gain some sort of acceptance.  I would be spending every Tuesday afternoon from 3:00-5:00 hanging out with not just my friends, but girls.  And not just girls, but ninth grade girls. Granted, I was one of the most awkward people around the opposite sex but it didn’t matter.  In fact, I thought that since many of the girls on the staff didn’t really know me, they might find that awkwardness charming and one would want to start hanging around with me and wind up kissing me or something.

Plus, the Central Junior High kids looked like they were having fun in that commercial.  Nobody at SJH was walking around dressed like fruit, but having flipped through my seventh grade book, I knew that there was plenty of potential for zaniness.  A look at page two certainly suggests that there might have been.  It’s a page I laid out or at least provided the artwork for because there is a hand-drawn FaberCastell American #2 pencil in the middle of the words “Yearbook Staff” (Broadway font was used for that headline).  The brand of the pencil was something only I would have gone so far as to write out in a drawing and the two pictures on the page that aren’t the large group picture are one of work and one of play.

The bottom half of the yearbook staff spread. Layout, caption, Broadway font, and badly drawn pencil courtesy of yours truly.

There’s nary a pica between those candids, but I seem to remember liking the balance they struck.  On the left is a picture of our adviser, Mr. Young, working with a student on her pages, probably helping her place a photo or editing some copy so that the book could be pitch perfect.  On the right is a girl sliding across the floor with the caption “HELP MEEEE!”  The photo is not the best-composed one because a chair is right in the foreground but the picture was definitely chosen to say, “Hey, we had fun doing this so we hope you’ll have fun flipping through it!”  The rest of the book is kind of the same: “Look at all the fun we had in 1990-91!  We never studied!  Classes weren’t that hard!  Nobody got threatened or had his book bag thrown down the south stairwell every day before sixth period French class!  We were all one big family and had a great time!  So, come on give us a try at Sayville Junior High!”

I laugh now because I know how painstaking the work is when you are crafting that image, and twenty years ago it was tougher.  Yearbooks were done by hand using materials that every adviser probably has in the bowels of his room:  layout sheets, photo pencils, proportion wheels, and croppers.  Layout sheets were giant blue and white sheets with a tight grid that each staff member used to show the publisher where the graphics and the type would go.  For instance, in my girls/boys soccer spread, I drew boxes for each picture and numbered each box.  Then, I’d take a sticker and write the corresponding number on it and place that sticker on the back of a picture or graphic and wax pencil marks would indicate where to crop the picture.  So, when Herff Jones got the package for pages 8-9 they would then know that picture 3 was the girls soccer team photo and the random guy in the background on the right-hand side should be taken out.

The first page of my eighth grade yearbook, featuring a special poem and yellow ribbon dedicated to the Operation: Desert Storm troops. We had to color in each yellow ribbon with highlighters the day the books came in.

Copy for the pages was even more dark ages than the pictures because instead of typing a caption onto a spread in InDesign, I had to feed a triplicate sheet into the IBM Selectric typewriter that Mr. Young had in his classroom and pray that I would not make an error.  Then, at some point, Herff Jones would send us a proof that we would have to check for errors, especially in the spelling of names.  That part hasn’t changed much in twenty years and I am honestly not surprised that I misspelled “Lindquist” on page 8 or listed one of the boys’ soccer coaches as simply, “Coach;” I’ve had plenty of misspellings get by in my tenure as a yearbook adviser.

Still, if the last two paragraphs bored you to tears, then good because they were supposed to.  The reason that the Central Jr. High yearbook staff looks so happy to be scarfing their Big Macs and fries at the end of that commercial is because they don’t have to spend any more time squinting while looking at a pica ruler to make sure the pictures on page 13 line up properly or worrying if they identified the correct Mullany twin the eighth grade panel flow.  The book, after all, is done and all that is left is to celebrate with artery-clogging fast food while the rest of the school enjoys the fruits of their labor, especially the strawberries.

As far as I remember, my junior high yearbook staff did not go to McDonald’s, but I do remember the day the book arrived because we collectively spent an entire afternoon coloring in a ribbon on page one with yellow highlighter.  It was a dedication page to the soldiers of Operation: Desert Storm that Mr. Young and other staffers had created in a brand new computer program called Arts & Letters and printed out the entire page on a brand new Hewlett-Packard laser printer that took what seemed like five minutes to print a single page.  The top was a yellow ribbon and the second half of the page contained a poem called “The Soldier” written by Alexandra Vincent that had an army medal behind it.  I think we each colored in 50 of those ribbons, but the sweet reward was getting to take the book home early and we probably wouldn’t have taken so long to color everything in if we hadn’t been ogling the cover, which purple with a gold spine and “Sayville Junior High 1972-1991” around a gold lightning bolt seal.  On the back was a drawing of workers taking down the “junior high” sign and putting the words “middle school” on the front of the building.

The back cover is credited to Susan L. Poll. The front cover since it was computer-designed, doesn’t have a credit, and I don’t think that you could even credit anyone for it.  It’s not that we came up with the front cover concept by committee or anything; it’s just that when Mr. Young asked for cover ideas, several people submitted the same ideas.  The two most popular wound up being the two covers.  I’m not sure I actually submitted anything at all because I wasn’t the type to think of good cover ideas (I still am not—my most genius yearbook cover idea to date is the word “yearbook” written in black Helvetica on a white background), but my friend Rich submitted both of these to Mr. Young and while he never got to draw the final versions, when the book came out he took credit for them.  I think I remember arguing with him over whether or not he actually came up with the cover idea, mainly because I had a tendency to argue with him or snipe and yell at him about nearly everything he talked about.  We were friends but I was kind of a dick in that way, a too-smart-for-his-own-good kid with a severe lack of self-esteem that meant I’d treat some of my friends like crap in order to make myself feel better.

It wasn’t something I did consciously, mind you, but in the eighth grade you didn’t need to consciously act mean in order to be mean.  Much is made about bullying and how students treat one another these days and there was definitely that, but not enough is made of the involuntary, subconscious bullying that goes on.  It was never that I wanted to tell my friend he wasn’t better than me just because he thought of an idea that I didn’t or that he actually was right about something when I wasn’t, but I had tripped through my entire year and something inside me said, “You need to be right; you need to be better.”  And we kind of all accepted my being a jerk-off, or at least that was the impression I got.  Besides, it didn’t really matter who came up with that cover idea because for as much recognition Rich wanted from me and anyone else on the staff, the general population of our junior high only seemed to care about pointing out to everyone that the “junior high” sign on the front of the building was a series of individual letters and not one sign as depicted on the back cover.

Indeed it was, as those serif-font letters would be removed some time later and replaced with a sans-serif “Sayville Middle School” (although for years afterward you could see the outline of “Sayville Junior High School” on the front of the building), and whether or not the sign was a series of letters wasn’t the point of the back cover illustration.  We were looking to define the end of an era because with the changing of that sign and the exit of the ninth grade went a whole sort of attitude.  I would go on to spend four years in Sayville High School and the 1991 junior high yearbook got

The student council spread, where my friends and I were "Just Foolin' Around." That's me in the Harvard sweatshirt, and I'm pretty sure I did this page because I was lame enough to write captions like that.

shoved into a box in the basement along with my cap and gown, my high school diploma, old copies of the Sayville High student newspaper, award certificates, the commemorative SJH pins, and any other memorabilia that I’ve held onto from those years of my life.

As much as the Golden Arches want me to revisit what they say was a “Great Year!”, I can’t think of anything I’d like to relive less.  Oh sure, there are pictures of me laughing that have captions like “Just Foolin’ Around,” but that only tells me that we as a yearbook staff did our job very well because nowhere do you see anything that would suggest that I have journal entries that say things like, “I’ve started a war with ASSHOLE Tim Smith.  I defended myself, so now he’s on my back.  Well he can go Fuck [sic] himself cause I aint [sic] letting up.”  I was a very angry eighth grader at times, although most of the journal is either very mundane or me professing love for some girl I liked.  But that doesn’t matter so much as the fact that I’m pretty sure if everyone in junior high kept a journal it’d be as all over the place as mine was.  And maybe they are like me, someone who still takes pride in the fact that not only did I go to—but I survived Sayville Junior High.

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