Live Through This

2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten

Me, according to the people who signed my yearbooks.

Your high school yearbook doesn’t have much to do with you. Even if you had a Max Fischer-like compulsion to be in as many clubs as possible and your face pops up in several different photo spreads, you’re still talking about a book filled mostly with pictures of other people. It’s the comments scribbled by your friends on the inside covers that really testify to your year. The vague compliments, the silly anecdotes, the inside jokes—these are almost always the best record of the connections you made and the things you did.

Looking through my own four yearbooks, I realized something else: they had an interesting reverse-diary quality to them. It was the story of the person I was from ninth to 12th grade as told by the kids that I knew back then. The moments they refer to may not be what I would have considered highlights, but they defined me to other people, whose opinions of me were only sometimes consistent with how I saw myself. On the whole, these kids’ appraisal of me was a lot kinder than my own.

See for yourself:

Ninth Grade

This is the year I established myself as a “good friend.” I got my fair share of the standard yearbook platitudes, but that one made sense. It was my first year in a small parochial high school that that included kids from four or five different cities, only four of whom I already knew. So the vast majority of my friendships were new, and by the end of the year had progressed only to the point where people were comfortable wishing me a “good summer,” not a great one. Honestly, I appreciate that kind of restraint. It’s the yearbook equivalent of not saying “I love you” prematurely. Those who were a little more specific brought up crushes that I’d had over the year, reinforcing the perception I have of my high school self, which goes a little something like: BOOOOOOOYYYZZZ! A buddy from PE class (the two of us spent most of the period performing dueling imitations of the ’90s-era Saturday Night Live character Goat Boy) mentions a mysterious “V”—a crush that, according to her, I was in denial about.

The definitive event of the year, according to at least four signees, was a Disneyland trip, when my band class flew down to Anaheim and performed in the park. It’s actually pretty surprising that I don’t immediately think about that trip when I think about ninth grade, because something odd and definitely noteworthy happened: while we were backstage after our performance, I stood on a table and did an a cappella rendition of “Danke Schoen” in front of my classmates and a group of bewildered local nuns (seemingly placed there by the Fates just to make the situation as inexplicable as possible). It was the act of an attention-seeker with questionable musical taste who’d probably re-watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the weeks preceding. It understandably made an impression on everyone who was there, and it’s why someone wrote “keep singing Donkey Shank.”

I would say at this point in my life I was an extroverted introvert, someone who, at her core, is reserved or possibly even shy, but who also has a strong desire to be noticed or entertain, and so pushes past those inhibitions even though it makes her want to poop. At least that’s how I’m defining it. When I sang that day, I wanted to make people laugh, and that feeling trumped any securities that I had. In my heart, though, I was a withdrawn and perpetually anxious Cameron Frye.

Tenth Grade

This was when “have a good summer” turned into “we should do something during the summer,” meaning my friends didn’t just ambivalently want things to turn out OK for me during the three-month break—they wanted to be a part of that OK-ness. In 10th grade, anecdotes outnumbered generalizations and people were signing their names with hearts. It was a positive time in my life.

My locker-neighbor, who would become one of my best friends by the end of high school, drew a cute little picture of a hand with lines shooting out of it that would appear to be a reference to teen sorcery but, no, I’m just now remembering that it is a hieroglyph of sorts symbolizing a secret handshake that we’d invented. We’d extend our hands as if we were about to shake but stop short of actually clasping by waving our fingers from side to side in a fluid, undulating motion. I can’t tell you the meaning behind the handshake because, duh, it’s a secret. Also, I can’t remember. But I can tell you that a secret handshake is the most intimate thing that two people can share.

Another close friend drew a picture of the Beastie Boys—a terrific picture, in fact, that captures Mike D’s wonderful nose perfectly. The Beastie Boys were my favorite group in high school (and in life, forever). Theirs was the first concert I went to without parental supervision and I enthusiastically wore their T-shirt to the show, because I’d just turned 14 and didn’t know any better (the last group I’d seen in concert was New Kids on the Block, and the rules were different then).

In my mind, the portrait of the Beastie Boys is also a portrait of me, and of the friendship that I had with its creator, because I didn’t ask her to draw it, but she took the time to do it—in fact, she asked if she could take my yearbook home overnight to work on it. Friends get you; they understand what you’re all about—and that’s what I see when I look at that picture.

Eleventh Grade

No one phoned it in this year. Everyone kept it really, really real, and that’s why I have several people in this book reminding me of how shitty I was at math, including my Algebra 2 teacher. One friend said, “I wish my butt was as big as yours,” another called me an “Adam Sandler fruit” (I used to incessantly quote Billy Madison). Someone started their comment with “dear Hump 4 free” (my last name is Humphrey and every year, from the time I was in second grade, some brilliant person’s has alighted on that nickname), and one boy called me “sweaty,” though he may have meant “sweetie,” I don’t know. Was I sweaty? At 16 I wasn’t particularly graceful, all of my crushes were unrequited, and I wasn’t cool or popular in the teen-movie sense of the word, but I accepted those things. I could laugh at my foibles and quirks, and I wasn’t above pointing out the foibles and quirks of my friends. All pretense had been stripped from my relationships, and we’d moved from platitudes to razzing.

On the other hand, my drama teacher wrote something so unequivocally nice that when I reread it for the first time about five years ago, I cried harder than I’d cried during Bambi, the end of My Girl, and this scene from The Sixth Sense combined. “Drama and comedy…it’s your calling,” he wrote. “Remember the small people when you make it big. Continue to work hard and make people smile. All the best toward your bright future.” This is perhaps the sort of thing that every drama teacher writes, but I actually had some very real plans to “make it big.” Sophomore year, I did a solo comedy bit in the school’s talent show—I’d been such a hit with Anaheim’s nun population a year earlier, it only seemed natural to try to expand my fan base. (The routine was basically a rip-off of something that I’d seen Andy Kaufman do mixed with Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher character.) The summer between my sophomore and junior years, I did stand-up comedy for the first time. Anyway, I gained a reputation as a funny person, or at least someone who fancied herself a funny person, and everyone who knew me knew that my dream was to be on Saturday Night Live.

When I reread my teacher’s message five years ago, I was an adult who had not, in fact, “made it big.” SNL was no longer my dream, and I was no longer an extroverted introvert (it’s the “extroverted” part that left; the introvert stuck around). I’d lost whatever bravado pushed me to do things like sing on tables or enter talent shows. I’d finished college and was at a point in my life where I didn’t have much confidence, and all my goals were vague: Maybe I’ll go to Italy. Maybe I’ll work in a museum. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And then I read what my drama teacher had written, and I remembered that someone, at one time, had believed in me. This was huge.

I’m still working through my confidence issues, but the one thing I have come to understand is that “making it big” is a totally subjective concept, and success is relative. Like now, for instance, I’d say that I was livin’ pretty large if I were able to pay for health insurance.

Twelfth Grade

If I’m being completely honest, I’m pretty selfish and grumpy. I’m not uncaring or purposely mean, but no one would describe me as “sweet.” I’ve more or less always seen myself this way. Yet my yearbook is filled with these great, long blocks of love. There are comments like “I believe in you” and “follow your dream,” and then others like “I don’t know what I’m going to do without my fave hump-a-tree.” I appreciate the silliness of that last one, because it mitigates some of the sentimentality that gets me choked up in the others. My relationships had depth at this point, and even though I didn’t see myself in the most favorable light, I was clearly important to these people—some even referred to me as a sister.

Aside from the occasional “happy birthday” message on Facebook, I haven’t kept in touch with anyone from back then. It’s sad that our friendships don’t always last, but I still feel lucky. High school definitely had its share of thoroughly shitty and/or embarrassing moments, but when I look at these messages, I realize that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. In fact, it was mostly positive: I had these great friends, friends who laughed with me, brought balloons to school on my birthday, and supported me. I only hope what I wrote in their yearbooks is half as valuable to them. ♦

27 Comments

  • rosiesayrelax January 15th, 2013 3:07 PM

    This is so weird, I was just looking through my wardrobe and I stumbled upon my junior school T-Shirt signed by people when I left (we didn’t have yearbooks -_-).
    It had loads of names on it of people I don’t even know, probably because I wanted to look popular or something. How lame.

    http://rosieandthewolf.blogspot.co.uk/

  • alex January 15th, 2013 3:25 PM

    why did this make me cry oaky

  • Nashipae January 15th, 2013 3:49 PM

    powerful way of telling things, thank you for sharing, I was touched.

  • iamrachii January 15th, 2013 4:07 PM

    I feel like I missed out big time here; our yearbooks were delayed in printing (the classmates who were making it did a shocking job, it’s full of photos of the same few people on their nights out) so we didn’t get them until after we finished school and so I never got mine signed by anyone. I’ve been out of high school nearly 3 years and I can’t think of anyone from my school year who I keep in touch with… at least I have old letters from old friends and the memories of the leaving party we have (I swear I’ve never hugged so many drunk crying people). I don’t really think I’d have had lots of nice messages from people anyway; I feel like I was, and still am, one of those kids who were just there rather than being someone people will remember. :/

    • Cerise January 16th, 2013 4:15 PM

      Me, too–except our yearbooks *always* came out late. We never got them until the beginning of the next school year, and by then, no one was going to go around asking people to sign them. It kind of makes me sad.

  • Isil January 15th, 2013 4:15 PM

    Oh god! It wasn’t too bad in high school for me (I LOVE my high school yearbook and my friends) but in middle school I was the weirdo of the ENTIRE school. According to me, other people was so weird. In my middle school yearbook people insulted me because I read Harry Potter…

    I felt sad because our yearbooks was print-outs and each person has just one page, and I couldn’t even put all of the writings on my yearbook. I wish I could draw some doodles to my friends’ yearbooks.

    http://isilnoir.wordpress.com

  • Jessica W January 15th, 2013 6:18 PM

    Interesting. I’m surprised at the lack of bad language…. Like REALLY surprised.
    Maybe I just hang out with some weirdos.

    The Lovelorn

    • marineo January 15th, 2013 6:55 PM

      haha i was thinking the same thing! my yearbook is chock full of bad language… lol. my friends usually just try to embarrass each other in their yearbooks and/or draw obscene pictures. like we filled my friend brooks’s yearbook full of little cartoon pictures of butts. but i’m sad i am going to get my last yearbook this year :(

      and then in 8th grade some kid in my orchestra class just wrote “i hate you”

      then in ninth grade we were best friends.

      • Jessica W January 16th, 2013 10:39 PM

        lmao that’s just great :D

      • Cutesycreator aka Monica May 31st, 2013 2:01 PM

        I cracked up at “and then in 8th grade some kid in my orchestra class just wrote “i hate you””!

  • Marian January 15th, 2013 7:11 PM

    These are so sweet. Muabe I should pull out my old yearbooks…
    thelunalovingbookworm.tumblr.com

  • Kaetlebugg January 15th, 2013 7:12 PM

    As a high school senior, I think this is lovely but also makes me really sad, because intellectually I’ve come to realize that some friends grow apart after high school and that’s not necessarily bad, but right now not being around my friends seems really scary and weird, even though I’m excited to make new friends in college. Just the idea that we might never be as close is really scary.

  • llamalina January 15th, 2013 7:24 PM

    wow. i dunno why but this made me so sad. i want to go find some of my old yearbooks now.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • Sofia January 15th, 2013 8:07 PM

    Such an amazing article! Love it! In my country we don’t have yearbooks, but I have folders and letters that work as reminders of those friendships(:

  • pleasecallmeginger January 15th, 2013 8:20 PM

    This article was really cool.
    I live in australia so we dont have that big 3 (!) month holiday period or summer camps or anything. Our semesters are halved into terms, and we have two weeks of holidays between each term, except for the summer holidays which are usually about six weeks long.
    We get yearbooks too, but I don’t think they’re as much of a big deal fir kids. They’re mainly for the parents I think.
    Thinking about it, there aren’t really clubs either. School in America seems a lot more interesting!

  • MaggietheCat January 15th, 2013 10:42 PM

    I was just thinking the other day about my senior yearbook, when this guy who I barely knew from my last high-school class ever wrote in my yearbook that he had an erotic dream about me, and that basically he had a crush on me that he had never mentioned.

    It’s so nice to look back now and know that, for all of the unrequited crushes I held over the years, someone had one on me.

    Memories.

  • Pearl January 16th, 2013 3:21 AM

    We had yearbooks in the final year of school but no one would sign each other’s book. We just had a bunch of group photos of each class. We did have slam books though, which were books with questions everyone made their friends write down, like “Describe yourself in 6 words/what’s your favourite ice-cream?” & stuff like that. I guess it’s sort of like of a year book.
    http://www.pforpearl.blogspot.com

  • Tangerine January 16th, 2013 3:23 AM

    Such cute and thoughtful messages!
    I never pull out my yearbooks to reminisce, because I had like, two friends all through school.

    Like the invisible girl on Buffy, my books were full of “Have a nice summer!” over and over again.

    • Anaheed January 16th, 2013 3:27 AM

      Oh you mean MARCIE?! I loved that ep so much.

      • Tangerine January 16th, 2013 3:44 AM

        Yes! ((And then she gets recruited to be an assassin at the end, and I’m like SPINOFF??!!))

        Anyway, my high-school shyness didn’t turn me invisible, but it did drive me to pen volumes of angsty poetry. That’s my real yearbook!

        • Anaheed January 16th, 2013 2:42 PM

          I have been DYING for that spinoff for YEARS, man.

          I wish I had saved my teen-angst poetry. If nothing else it would be hilarious to read out loud to friends.

  • asylum January 16th, 2013 12:35 PM

    I wish our school had yearbooks every year, but we only get one at the end of senior year. It’s such a great way to sum up the school year (although frankly I’m not sure I’d want to sum up this year!)

    http://this-asylum.blogspot.in/

  • mayaautumn January 16th, 2013 1:25 PM

    this is pretty much the best thing i’ve seen all day… i love reading other people’s letters/notes (yes, i am very nosy..!)
    you got some really lovely messages

    http://mayathapapaya.wordpress.com

  • laughinguacamole January 16th, 2013 10:34 PM

    Wow… this sort of reminds me how much I miss my friends that graduated…

    My school doesn’t get yearbooks out until the beginning of the next year. Terrible system. Especially for seniors. I believe it’s a great big conspiracy to make us forget our friends over the summer without the yearbook memento to keep us going.

    http://alovearmy.tumblr.com/

  • rockslita January 17th, 2013 3:57 PM

    The title description made me think, what is this going to be about?! But after I had read it, I liked it so much, you have written a beautiful article – which makes me realize you have to appreciate the little things in life like yearbook notes..

    Love, Rosalie

    http://www.rockslita.com

  • Megara January 18th, 2013 12:37 AM

    my yearbooks are full of people saying mean things about me and calling me weird

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica May 31st, 2013 2:00 PM

    Aw!! This is really sweet <3