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What the yearbooks reveal

The sepia and black-and-white photographs evoke a sense of melancholy. The school yearbooks are water stained. Pages stick together and come apart with a thumb slid between them with the sound of paper tearing. On the slick paper, children and young adults pose with their best efforts, some of which aren’t very good. Some students have their heads cocked; others look straight ahead at the camera as if they were taking mugshots. The class goofs smile toothy smiles.

The books have weight. They were built to last with cloth covers and thick paper. Students have scrawled their best wishes and thoughts in the margins and on the end papers. Some take on superior tones. Others are quite serious. There are the whimsical. Not many of them are very original. Mostly, they say what a good year it’s been or how hard it was to get through gym class.

“Dearest Virginia, I hope you learned something from ME in art class this year. You’re not that bad. Keep up the good work and you might graduate. Your ol’ pal, Mark.”

The yearbooks are from Independence, Kansas, Junior High and Independence High School. The younger kids put together The Chief and the high schoolers The Orange and Black. The junior high teams were called the Indians, the high school teams the Bulldogs. There’s a certain amount of pride in them, something kids could hang onto.

“Remember Grant. Remember Lee. To hell with them. Remember me! Oren.”

But past the gimmicks and antics, beyond the childish production values—all these yearbooks were assembled by kids—there is something of my wife in them.

Virginia and I have talked of our pasts quite a bit, particularly the hard years after high school. I’ve heard stories of her growing up. But the year books provide a little context. She seems to have found a sense of belonging that counterbalanced the alienation and hurt. She looks to have had a better time of middle and high school than I did elementary and high school. She was involved in things, like band. She played the violin, which I never knew until I opened these books.

It makes me think that there are other pearls she hasn’t thought important enough to tell me.

“Ginny, It has been fun this year in band together, but try and keep your eyes on the director instead of the trombones. I don’t know why you would rather look at Bill than Mordy. It was fun partying at your house. Good luck in the future. Karen”

She retrieved the books this weekend from a friend’s house. Scott was cleaning out his house to sell it. He came across some things Virginia had left with him decades ago. It makes me wonder. Out of all the things she brought with her from childhood, why are these yearbooks the only things that survive? She must have had a reason, something she was hanging onto.

“Ginny! It’s been a good year in band from the Cotton Bowl to the Toilet Bowl. Ha, ha, ha. Have a good summer. Phil”

A couple of things strike me as I page through the books. These public-school kids had so many things we at Catholic school did not. They had shop, for instance. We didn’t have marching bands or forensics or debate. At least, I don’t think so. But I wasn’t at my most conscious during high school. I remember being envious of kids in my neighborhood who attended public school. They would show me chairs and birdhouses they made in shop or trophies they earned in debate. I felt less than, spurned, and bitter that I had to go to school with priests and nuns who spanked me. The kids in public school never got beaten, no matter how poorly they behaved.

“Stay just as cute and pretty as you are. Best wishes as a sophomore. Fred Astair (Scott Reid)”

I have been to Independence a dozen or more times with Virginia. I have not noticed a large black population. But here in the yearbooks, there are pictures of dozens of black students. I remember a couple of black kids in grade school and high school. But I never got to know them. I remember them in passing. I don’t know that they had a large group of friends. And in our reunions, of which I have only ever been to two, none of the black students I went to school with didn’t show up

Virginia also had black teachers. I don’t remember having even one. The formative part of my life would have been much different had I had black people in it doing important jobs and inhabiting positions of authority.

“Hey! What’s going on. You know it’s been fun knowing even though you always beat me up and you are kinda off (ha-ha). The one and only Leroy Shepherd.”

The books leave me in awe of my wife. She was so advanced compared to what I remember of myself. She had friends and navigated the halls of her high school with authority. Certainly, she wouldn’t remember things this way. It was high school, and anyone who’s alive and sensitive found those years confusing.

“Virginia, It’s been fun this year, even though you-know-who was in our art class. It’s going to be fun this summer, even more because we have driver’s ed together. We really had a lot of fun together in junior high. On 7th, 8th, and 9th grade. I think we gave at least a couple of teachers gray hair. What do you bet?????? For example—7th grade—Mrs. Borders and how we always gave her trouble. 8th grade—all the teachers were still strong and going because we didn’t have any classes together. 9th grade—Did you ever wonder why Mr. Bowling isn’t teaching next year? Oh, well—teachers can’t always have luck. Stay as sweet and cute as you are, and I’ll see you around a lot this summer. Love, Melissa)

These books make me think of my own. I bought the yearbooks, I remember that. As a matter of fact, I was a part of the yearbook club or production team or whatever we called it. I didn’t do much with them, I came and went as my mood and attitude dictated. But when I left high school, I didn’t look back. I don’t think I had many people sign my yearbooks. I wasn’t a popular kid. I never felt a part of anything. I certainly never played an instrument. I don’t think I ever went to an O’Hara High School Celtics game—football, basketball, or golf.

Fortunately, I still have a couple of contacts with people I went to high school with. Not many and less than most. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t even invited to the 30-year reunion. Someone just forgot. That’s par for the course. I don’t hold it against anyone. It was just high school.

Virginia had a good time in high school. She speaks of it with fondness but also with caveats. She had it rough in ways I didn’t.

But I wish I had a yearbook, even one. We were Celtics. I suppose there was something in that.

I like the way the books reveal another level to a person I have lived with in close proximity. She is a complicated person, a strong one. These books, that smell of mold and cedar, show more of her to me. I’m going to sit down with her and ask her to take me page by page through them to see how much more of her there is.

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