It’s graduation season. That means it’s also the time of year for signing yearbooks.
A couple of weeks ago, I had cause to haul out my high school yearbooks, just to quickly read what someone with whom I’d graduated had written. The next thing I knew, quite a while had passed while I indulged in a “nostalgia loop.” One just cannot read one inscription. All of them must be read. All the photos must be viewed. It’s simply impossible to simply glance at a yearbook.
Strangely, I had read an article a day beforehand about signing yearbooks, without knowing I’d be perusing mine the day after. Jennifer Billock penned a minor masterpiece of “creative nonfiction” with her June 3 article “Why Do People Sign Yearbooks” on www.thealtlantic.com. The Atlantic has become one of my go-to online reads lately, mostly for articles like that one.
In a fairly quick read, Billock pens the history of yearbook signatures from their somewhat murky origins in America in the 17th century (a product of Renaissance “commonplace books,” a subject in which I’m deeply interested) to today’s more tech-savvy approach. Billock really gets going when she discusses American yearbooks of the 20th century, discussing trends in what students wrote, decade-by-decade starting in the 1930s. Her graceful prose is a delight to read, but what really interested me were her implied “predictions backward.”
Billock predicts the actual text of what students wrote — some sayings are clichés — decade by decade. She notes, for example, how often the word “swell” appears in yearbook inscriptions in the 1940s and 1950s and explains how (and why) the word “love” started to appear in the later 1960s. She claims that acronyms, like “KIT” for “keep in touch,” started to appear in a “swarm” in the 1980s, presaging today’s “textspeak.” Frankly, I wouldn’t have gotten most of them without her explanations. “HAGS” for “have a great summer” just isn’t obvious to me, but I don’t get the kids’ textspeak today, either.
That’s when the article got really interesting for me — when she discussed the 1980s. I graduated high school then, and many of her examples from that time could have been taken from my yearbooks, literally word-for-word. It was so vivid that I remembered many of them without even looking at my yearbook. When I did look the next day, I estimated that Billock predicted about one-third to one-half of all the things my classmates had written.
Even my closest friends — who obviously wrote the most personal messages — often included one of her clichés. What’s interesting is that almost none of my friends repeated one that someone else had written. Maybe we all looked through the previous messages before signing? I remember trying to write something original in my classmates’ yearbooks, but I wonder now if we all had a stock of these clichés in our heads that we used for different yearbooks. I will say, though, my classmates had a few of these clichéd phrases before Billock claims they were common, so maybe we were setting some trends in originality.
Of course, I had to get out my college “yearbook,” and that’s where things got “truly and righteously” weird (as we used to say back in the 1980s). My alma mater, Berry College, did produce a yearbook, but I never got one. Instead, I bought a copy of “Miracle in the Mountains,” the biography of our founder, Martha Berry, by Harnett T. Kane. I had all my college friends sign it.
The weird thing? Although more people signed my high school yearbooks, I remembered all who signed. Fewer people signed my Berry “yearbook,” and the messages were longer, more personal and generally cliché-free — but there were a few people who signed who, for the life of me, I don’t remember. At all.
That’s probably the different nature of high school and college. A high school senior generally has known the people who signed his or her yearbook since first grade. College classmates generally have known each other for four years or less. Therefore, it stands to reason that I’d remember all my high school signatories but not quite all of my college ones.
As befitting a college yearbook, though, most of the messages in mine reflect the greater level of education and the different concerns. In high school, we wrote about “partying.” In college, we wrote about what we had learned. It’s not all high concepts, though. It’s both embarrassing and comforting how many times going to the Waffle House appears — I still love going “Waffling,” as we called it.
Despite all the warm fuzzies from the close friends of my school years, perhaps my favorite message is in my college yearbook, from someone whom I don’t know. We obviously didn’t know each other too well then, either, for he succinctly wrote: “I don’t know you, but I enjoyed your ___ at Poetry Night.”
Indeed, “brevity is the soul of wit.”
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The opinions reflected are his own.