A Yearbook Adviser’s Lament
During the final few weeks of any given school year, those of us who are high school yearbook advisers have a unique experience. While all of our colleagues, and most of our students, are winding down and preparing for summer, we’re gearing up for distribution, to us, the most stressful time of the year.
Why is it so stressful? I’m glad you asked.
There is something many people do not know about these tomes we create every year, even my fellow yearbook advisers. But, having worked in the publishing world as well as the teaching one, I can tell you, with 100% certainty, the most scrutinized work of literature in the world is a public high school yearbook. The irony, of course, is that in a scant nine months, a bunch of teenagers and one overworked adult create what is essentially a massive coffee table book that includes interviews, articles, photographs, and design elements that would take the publishing industry a lot longer to make. The production process, out there in the “real world” is significantly more involved and the editorial process is larger and more time consuming. That is why there are far fewer mistakes sprinkled throughout those books.
Despite these facts, there are still parents, students, administrators, and teachers who expect perfection to be born of an imperfect process. This, as you may have guessed, is not only an act in impossibility, but a serious stressor. We do our best anyway.
This year has been no different. The process, of course, has been significantly different. Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve all had to change the way we produce yearbooks and, in some cases, their overall content. And we’ve done it, across the board.
These yearbooks document the history of the schools they represent. After all, they are legally considered historical documents. But they are so much more. They are reminders to students, staff, and parents alike that there are some memories worth having from high school, this year in particular. It’s been rough and yearbook advisers and their students have worked harder than normal (and we all normally work harder than most). Despite how hard we’ve worked, despite the fact that we know we put our best stuff out there, as our products are released and distributed, we feel nervous. What if we messed something huge up? What if we did something terrible? What if? What if? What if?
Right now I am lamenting every mistake, even the minor ones, not so much because they happened. Due to the process, mistakes are natural. No. I’m lamenting because they hurt the yearbook staffs to see them publicized, even as they understand they happen. I am lamenting every hateful social media post criticizing any yearbook that students poured their blood, sweat, and tears into. Let me be clear. I am not lamenting criticism. I lamenting hateful criticism. I am lamenting misdirected anger. I am I am lamenting the fact that there are people who will never understand what we do, but more than that, I am lamenting those who will never try to. This, as you may have guessed, is something I have experience with. However, one incident that comes to mind is unique enough to share.
I once had a meeting with a literary agent in which we discussed my writing and teaching life and some of my creative work. She was a bit older than me, experienced, one of those literary agents that is well respected around the New York City scene. It was a minor miracle that I had a meeting with her.
During our conversation she told me that nobody cared about my yearbooks. After she said that, I blinked and took a moment, my head cocked to the side as the full understanding of her words rushed over me like an alien invasion.
There was a discernible shift in the room’s atmosphere.
I grew obviously angry.
This anger had nothing to do with her lack of understanding of the yearbook making process and everything to do with the way she dismissed it outright. To this day, I am not lamenting my cool response to her words. I am lamenting her refusal to try to understand what it is I do, even as I am certain she occasionally peeks at her high school yearbooks.
But you know what?
I’m also celebrating. I’m celebrating the end of another school year. I’m celebrating the fact that, despite what social media might indicate, there are teenagers out there who understand hard work, who take pride in what they make, and who are generally doing their best. I’m celebrating because in the face of adversity, we triumphed. I’m celebrating because the number of parents, teachers, and administrators who understand that there are minor mistakes in yearbooks and happily roll with them is far higher than the number who do not. I’m celebrating that, while the process may be foreign to many, the idea that we’re not perfect is perfectly acceptable to most. I’m celebrating because even those who refuse to understand the process, appreciate the product throughout their lives.
Mostly though, I’m celebrating that once more, my students and I created something we can be proud of.