Sad but not unexpected news came in the mail today. I was informed that there are no plans to present this year’s Reveille, my college’s yearbook, first published in 1855 and published every year since then. Apparently, a printed record of one’s collegiate life is no longer needed or wanted. My college is not alone; A few years ago, I tried to buy a yearbook for my son and daughter when they graduated from their alma maters, but none were published then either.
I will miss yearbooks; they have presented a sort of emotional and anthropological snapshot of particular sorts of institutions at particular points in history. Photos capture the prevailing fashions and attitudes, artless comments throughout the book reveal the language and cultural influences which prevailed among students about to enter the work world in that era. I own something like fifty yearbooks from schools and colleges I happened not to have attended. Some have peripheral historical significance, such as the Princeton yearbook published in the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson graduated, but any whiff of significance is purely accidental. I found that Princeton yearbook in a barn in Maine next to a set of instructional manuals on the operation of the McCormick Deering Grain Binder. I passed on the manual, but paid top dollar (OK, actually three dollars) for the yearbook.
I started collecting yearbooks as a sophomore in high school. For reasons that shall remain undisclosed, it often happened that I was held captive did detention in fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time in my school’s library, an undistinguished library in most areas, but one that had amassed a significant collection of school and college yearbooks. It never occurred to me to wonder why the Rollins College Tomokan, the Union College Garnet, or Babson College’s Babsonian came to rest in the bowels of a small school’s library, but rest there they did until my enforced solitude in the building’s basement compelled me to find some kind, any kind, of diversion. Later, in my college years, I again used what might have been time better spent in pursuit of study in my major field (which was not yearbooks) rather than combing through my college’s annuals and others that happened to wash up in the college’s archives.
I would go on to become a college counselor for much of my career, endlessly fascinated by the stories college students had to tell about themselves. I’d like to think that I had some intuitive impulse to prepare for a vocation, but the truth is that for me there is a world of conjecture in any yearbook. The National Lampoon High School Yearbook remains a triumph of invention because, like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, it understood the complexities of adolescent idiocy, not merely the self-important posturing and posing, but the unguarded yearning as well. The 1958 Tomokan was equally transparent, presenting the sisters of various sororities in charming vignettes, fraternity boys with similar affection, jamming the non-affiliated on a few pages of tiny photographs. I’ve done my homework since seeing that Tomokan, finding in the 1951 Tomokan the senior portrait of Fred McFeely Rogers of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Mr. Rogers to the rest of us, the man who spoke at exactly 124 words per minute, the rate at which children best process language, who maintained his weight at 143 pounds for most of his life because it takes 1 letter to say I, four to say love, and three to say you, the same Mr. Rogers, who transferred to Rollins in Florida from Dartmouth in New Hampshire, from what was then an all-male Ivy League winter playground to a small co-ed college in Florida best known for water skiing.
It’s often a lovely day in that neighborhood.
That’s what I mean. There are stories within stories, and every yearbook sets the backdrop against which young people began the process of becoming themselves, or losing themselves, or hiding themselves. My Princeton yearbook, the 1917 Bric-A-Brac, would have appeared just as the United States entered World War I. Much is made of the annual musical comedy written and performed by students in the Triangle Club, and particular attention is drawn to the plot and lyrics written by Fitzgerald. “…both were out of the ordinary and well above the usual Triangle Club standard.” From all accounts, Fitzgerald pretty much ignored the petty demands of schoolwork in order to write the show, flunked out of Princeton, and found himself in the army as the nation entered the war.
The 1917 edition of Pot Pourri, the annual published by Phillips Academy Andover, chronicled the disruption of school activities as members of the junior and senior classes trained for military service. Athletics were suspended as the boys marched with precision in order to prepare for trench warfare. My copy of the 1940 edition of The Dial, yearbook of the Hill School, celebrates the career of young men about to leave the fun and frolic of school days for the hardship and danger of war. My father-in-law’s photo in that yearbook presents the high school senior’s version of the wry smile I first saw when meeting him for the first time. Within the next three years, he would be flying in a B-24 over the oil fields of Romania, completing mission after mission until his plane was shot down. He was held in a prisoner-of-war camp, escaping only to learn that his parents had been told he was missing and presumed dead.
I have college yearbooks from the post-war era, years in which G.I.s put away silver stars and purple hearts, changed from uniforms of the day to chinos, returned to the classrooms and the fraternities with the sound of war still in their ears. Their portraits are more serious, more composed, and their ambitions more grounded. Many lived in married housing; their children saw them graduate.
My own yearbooks document the cataclysmic upheaval of the 1960’s. In the first half of the decade, there are few changes from the books published in the 1950’s. Big events included football games, dances, Proms, fraternity and sorority rushes, hilarious fund-raisers in which men dressed as women, kissing booths, pie eating contests. Things started to change, very slowly; in November of 1963, JFK was assassinated, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a March on Poverty, delivering the “I Have A Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, calling for an end to racism. But my freshman year in college, 1964–1965, was the first in which first year students (frosh) did not have to wear the class “beanie” and survive the ritual dismemberment known as freshman-sophomore cane rush. By the end of that year, a chapter of Students for A Democratic Society had been formed, protesting the annual “War Ball”, a dance hosted by the college’s students enrolled in the ROTC program. The Free Speech Movement had already begun at Berkeley, and by the time I graduated, college campuses had become hotbeds of political activism, many going on strike in May of 1970, after Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students at Kent State University.
The 1965 yearbook resembled the last forty yearbooks in substance and design. Within two years, the yearbook had become a “yearbox”, a collection of highly stylized photographs which could be combined in any order. And now, yearbooks have become, as they always intended to be, things of the past, too posed and too static in a digital age. Even video yearbooks have begun to disappear as an ordinary phone can hold thousands of memories to be posted and re-posted at will.
I am of an age. Each of us is. But we follow those who have gone on before us. I’ve spent a lifetime looking back at the histories of people I’ve never known. I’ve made up stories about all of them, followed their imagined lives, mourned with them, celebrated with them. Time wasted? Perhaps In a sense I’ve been able to live several lives, none of them with much impact, but with the conviction that no matter how fashion and language change, the path remains remarkably the same.