May 6, 2009 / Whitt and Wisdom

Whose book is it, anyway?

Written by Anne G. Whitt, MJE

Around the yearbook room, staffers refer to the books, not by theme, but by editor. It’s “Julie’s book,”  “Britney and Katie’s book” or “Theresa’s book.”

One year a former editor who had graduated before any of the current staff entered high school returned to visit. As soon as the staff heard the adviser greet Joe, someone called out, “Is that Joe of ‘Joe’s book?’”

Indeed it was, and he received the acclaim he deserved from the staff.

But of course, it wasn’t only Joe’s book any more than it was Kathy’s or Jamie’s.

So, whose book is it?

It’s Alan’s book. Two years after graduating high school, Alan married and moved to the Carolina coast area. That same year a hurricane came to the Carolina coast. Alan and his bride escaped, but the entire contents of the apartment were lost. His mother offered to help the newlyweds replace clothes or furnishings. Alan said, “Mom, we can handle those things, but would you call the high school and see whether you can buy me another yearbook. It won’t be signed, but just see if you can get a book.”

It’s Carol’s book. She wrote to her high school to order replacements after hers had been stolen from her apartment.

It’s fans’ book. A classified ad ran for several weeks in the city paper, “Wanted: Jones High School yearbook with Wesley Snipes in it. Will pay up to $300.”

Books showing Johnny Damon in high school have prompted calls from several states.

Fans and MTV have requested books showing Joey Fatone in high school.

Nobody in high school knew that A.J. Pierzynski would one day help win the World Series, or that Wayne Brady or Brian Barber would become so famous.

It’s the police department’s book. Like it or not, police departments across the country want the books for identification of names.

It’s the teachers’ book now and in the future. Each spring when the books appear, teachers read stories about students or colleagues and say, “I didn’t know that about….”

In the future, when teachers read about a name they remember but can’t identify, they turn to yearbooks for reminders.

It’s the reunion guide. During the current year students just know they can never forget who was who, but they do.

It’s the Foundation’s book. Private schools usually have a foundation that spends every day hunting funding for the school. Nobody claims the book with so great a zeal as the Foundation.

It’s parents’ book. While parents usually take albums full of pictures as their offspring grow, most of those pictures are in the context of family. The school yearbook shows the young family members in the context of their world: their friends, their workday and their activities. Often parents buy their own, unmarked copies of the book. One family came back to buy seven more copies of the book after having already bought books for each daughter. The mother said, “We’ll have no other opportunity to showcase our children in their workday world.”

It’s the community’s book. Enter a local photography shop, orthodontist’s office or real estate office and the most read item is the local high school yearbook.

It’s the new faculty’s book. At schools where principals make a copy of last year’s yearbook to include in each new teacher’s welcome package, recipients often say this is the most helpful item among the lot.

It’s Everyman’s collection of private memories. I was not a cheerleader, not a class officer, not even a club officer. I played flute in the band. (No player in the entire band is less conspicuous than those who play flute.) In all our insignificance, my friends and I loved our chorus teacher. He managed to make each one of us sound good for the first time.

When the books came out in the spring, he signed his mug shot in my book with green ink, “Best wishes.”

That summer he went to visit his sister. She found him in a bathroom with both wrists slit.

When I heard the news, I took the yearbook upstairs to my bedroom, opened to the page he had signed and cried.

On another page of that same book is a full-length picture of my daddy. It’s the only full-length picture anyone has of my all-time favorite person. He had attended a reception at the school, and he stood near the stairs. A yearbook photographer slipped upstairs and through the stairway and took a shot of the crowd. Daddy was in the front. Between that event and the book distribution, a great flood destroyed most of the town, including our house with all our pictures. Then my daddy just dropped dead one Friday night. That picture in the yearbook is the best we have of him.

The book with those two pictures and the green ink blurred on one will in a few years be 50 years old. From its arrival until today that book has been at my fingertips. I cannot imagine anything I would trade for it.

My own sister once looked at me with puzzled expression as she said, “I don’t know why you put so much effort into those books. They’re just high school yearbooks.”

I said, “That is exactly why I put so much effort into them. For 4,000 people, these are the high school yearbooks. How we make them this year is how these treasures will remain for posterity.”

Anne G. Whitt, MJE

Anne Whitt, MJE, is a retired yearbook adviser who taught at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., and at the community college level. She was named a JEA Distinguished Adviser in 2000, and the yearbook earned state and national honors throughout the decades that she taught.