May 6, 2009 / Write Away

Finding the Way in Yearbook is Often an Epic Journey

Written by Donna Skates

I’m certain that Melville wrote “Moby Dick” with the yearbook in mind. He just didn’t realize it. Like the great white whale, the yearbook is big, mysterious, and at times one of the most inspiring, exciting journeys you’ve ever been on. But, let’s face it, at other times it’s a killer.

Three of the biggest problems I’ve experienced on this epic journey involved finding the way – developing a theme, new sections, and new story ideas. So, like Ishmael, “whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet (that Melville was a cheery guy); whenever it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off-then, I account it high time” to find my way to a theme, a new section, and new story ideas as soon as I can.

Call me Adviser.

Just like Ishmael and the other crew members of the Pequod, the adviser and staff should never sleep and should certainly never spend a relaxing evening with family and friends until they find that pesky theme. Sometimes I think every theme and every story idea have already been taken and I must simply steel myself to that fact; but then, on a clear day, that inscrutable white whale will surface, and I’m back on my monomaniacal chase.

“Look a little deeper,” Melville says, and I reply, “OK, Herman, I’ll try.”

Where to look? Last year I found an idea on my bookshelf. Ten years ago, a good friend gave me “Particular Passions,” a book about interesting women. Have I read it? No. But I’m an optimist; the captain of the ship must be an optimist. So, in one of those strange fits of thinking that I might have a minute to read, I pulled the book down from the shelf and suddenly realized the title would be a good theme.

Excited, I suggested “particular passions” to my editors, who were thinking about “patterns,” but all I could see there was a quilt. Armed with my new idea, I strode into the room like Ahab with his gold doubloon and harpooned it to (sorry, I do love a metaphor), rather, wrote it on the board. They laughed me out of the room as they often do.

“Soooooo,” I said, a bit tentatively, “How about using the idea for a new section at least?” and they agreed. I had asked my English classes at the beginning of the year to write about something they were passionate about. I figured that I clearly had no control in yearbook, but my classroom was another ship, and there I had some control. The students came up with a few good narratives, and we used some of these topics, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, in the section. There were passions for procrastination, for cooking, for firefighting. And when one of the writers heard about a teacher who was fighting lung cancer, he asked her if she would consider telling us her story. She did, and we called that story a passion for life. Sadly, she died before the yearbook came out.

As the months raced on and on, we still didn’t have a theme. Our theme finally came in the mail in the form of an advertisement. I saw it on the yearbook room floor; someone had missed the trash. It was a clever graphic treatment of the word “complete”-lots of possibilities, I thought. We were now up to “patterns” and “reflections,” and I was beginning to have chest pains; the editors weren’t too worried. They didn’t like “complete” any better than my last suggestion, and I knew they wouldn”t, but these editors were my babies, raised from innocent freshmen, and, unlike some I’ve raised, they were still kind. I told them, “I don’t really care if you don’t like my ideas; I just want to play too,” so they let me play. And as irony would have it (and irony does win its share of battles in yearbook), “complete” became our theme by default. The time was up, and we needed a theme if we wanted a yearbook in the spring. That was the only time in 13 years that any theme idea of mine has ever made it that far.

Actually, I think I’ve had some decent ideas. After reading Nick Bantock’s “Griffin and Sabine,” I suggested a similar theme idea based on notes and letters. I didn’t know what the actual theme might be, but I could see all types of letters and notes-love notes, Dear John notes, e-mail, notes teachers sent home, memos from the administration, doodles from class, college recommendations and essays, notes from parents, “To Do” lists. You guessed it. I was laughed out of the room.

While watching television recently, I saw the phrase “art of influence” and thought, “what a good section idea!” The possibilities are endless: students influenced by teachers, by coaches, by family, by friends, by drugs, by illness. The influence could be good or bad. It could be something really tiny or something that changed someone’s life. And what about at least one story from a teacher or one from a parent? We’ve never had a story from a parent.

On NPR one morning a few weeks ago, they were interviewing people who had lost almost everything in the latest hurricane. What about a section on crisis? We learn the most about ourselves when we find ourselves in a crisis, whether it be how to get out of a date, how to tell your parents about a speeding ticket, or how to survive a serious illness.

Other story ideas? What about telling the freshmen that those big, scary seniors were once afraid of high school? For a first-day writing assignment, several of the senior English teachers played a song, “That Was Me in Grade 9,” and asked the seniors to take a look back. We found the student pictures from their freshman year and put several of those stories in the freshman mugs section.

Two years ago, we had a story on families, and last year the editors included an entire section on students writing about members of their families. We used several good narratives and a poem about a mom who no longer kissed her daughter goodnight before she went to bed. Who’s to say you can’t put a poem in a yearbook? I say you can, and I’ll bet Melville would agree.

Happy whaling.

Donna Skates