Luv U 4ever!

Dear Yearbook: You're still cool. Please stay just the way you are.

High school yearbooks have survived with a very strange recipe that hasn’t changed much over the decades. That recipe starts with the idea that your school contains the brightest scholars or finest athletes. Or both. Next, it puts the grandest decrees about the future alongside the silliest sayings about study hall. Toss in some photos, a bit of verse, awful puns, local ads. Then charge a hefty fee and encourage buyers to scrawl all over their new merchandise.

It’s like working nine months to build a splendid monument in the hopes it will last forever and that people will tag it with graffiti at the unveiling.

Somehow, it works.

While newspapers and magazines struggle for breath, trying to keep up with Twitter and Facebook, one of the slowest, most static and least portable of periodicals—the lumbering yearbook—just keeps plodding along.

Granted, some colleges have dropped their yearbooks and some high school annuals are declining in popularity as electronic distractions grab attention and yearbook prices top $80. But many Central Florida high schools say their sales remain steady, even in a slow economy.

Apopka High student Shana Rhodes says she and her friends enjoy social networking sites in cyberspace, but she wanted to work on the Darter yearbook precisely because it marks their rite of passage with a tangible record.

“Twitter will go away,” says Shana, 18. “But a yearbook will never perish.”

Maybe that’s part of its ongoing appeal. Lift some of today’s 400-page volumes and you sense that those hardbound, five-pound tomes will endure even as memories fade. They’ll still be around long after hard drives crash and one technology displaces another.

You can’t use big floppy disks from the 1980s with today’s computers. But you still can open up the 1924 Echo yearbook of Orlando High School and hear the Therons, Thelmas, Ottos and Lotties issue a verdict meant to distinguish themselves forever: “It is doubtful if the fair city of Orlando will ever again witness such a brilliant, generous and all-around good class.”

You’re the best!

Nowadays the yearbook boasting tends to be more individualistic. Schools sell senior ads–full-page color tributes written by family members at about $300 a pop. It gives parents a chance to say how they doubt the fair cities of Orlando or Apopka or Kissimmee will ever witness such singular marvels again.

Boone High yearbook adviser Renee Burke says the ads sell well because many parents stay involved in all aspects of their teenagers’ lives, including shoring up self-esteem through full-page yearbook ads. She’s glad they do because the ads help defray the $120,000 needed to publish the annuals.

“It’s the notion that everyone’s a winner,” Burke says of the tribute pages. “They want that immortality.” And as an aside, she says of the family photos and parental accolades, “They do look beautiful.”

That’s quite a change from the days when ads in the back of a yearbook were mostly just a chance for local businesses to put in a good word about their future customers and workers.

Apopka seniors used to get a fond salute from the local mushroom factory: “Ralston Purina Mushroom Farm Congratulates The Graduating Class of 1976.” And in celebration of that year’s crop of students, the company proudly displayed photos of some of its finest mushrooms.

But the photogenic fungi that honored Georgiana, Tim, Judy and Jeff have been replaced by glossy senior ads for Ashley, Shanika, Brandy, Arturo and Phuong, praising their honesty, character, brains and determination. They do seem like good kids, but such pages of praises never would have occurred to the parents of Wilma, Cyril, Narcile and Cyrus from Orlando High’s greatest-ever Class of 1924.

Early yearbooks offered lined pages for classmates’ autographs. That, as we know, morphed into notes written wherever, offering good wishes, mutual praise and peer approval—vital to kids of all eras. But the topics and the slang also offer windows into shifting cultural moods.

If the 1954 Devil’s Diary of Winter Garden’s Lakeview High is any indication, there was once an urgent need to remind everybody that to succeed you just need to “stay sweet as you are through the years.”

By 1965, at Edgewater High in Orlando, Larry was inscribing to Texann those immortal words that defined their era: “Raise Hell, you cool fink!!” And Susan happily admitted the best part of geometry was talking with her friend while the teacher droned on: “I don’t think either one of us learned anything, did we? If we did, it wasn’t much!!!”

By the 1980s, you could see a “stone fox” in a yearbook, and by 1990, the bywords were: “Have a rad summer!” And don’t forget to K.I.T—keep in touch. By 2000, it was T.T.F.N.—Ta-ta for now.

Today, you find abbreviations such as such as ILY (I love you) and JK (just kidding). But a new trend has taken hold. Yearbook notes are accompanied by hand-drawn designs, flowery doodles and colorful attempts at bold, freehand lettering.

Dear Yearbook, We’ll NEVER Forget You!!!!!

Once published, a yearbook won’t go through constant revisions like a Facebook page, but its owner often will. Maybe that’s why a “cool fink” such as Texann Ivy Buck loves her yearbook even though it evokes a jumble of feelings—sweet memories of a simpler time and sharp dismay at reliving her years as an awkward teen.

“I didn’t like parts of high school,” Buck says. “I didn’t feel like I fit in.”

Now 62 and a successful Orlando art appraiser, Buck remembers being a self-conscious girl who the mean kids called Poison Ivy.

But Ralph (Class of ’65) also praised her “friendly smile that could make any boy flip his lid.” And Yvonne (Class of ’65) called her “One of the swingingest gals at school.”

Buck relishes the chance to relive both acceptance and rejection. The yearbook lets her see her life through the eyes of her teenage self and also with the maturity of the person she became—someone who can appreciate the experiences that formed her.

“It’s the greatest treasure you can have from that time,” Buck says. “You don’t realize it until you get older.”

Erin Tachi, 17, who’s entering her senior year at Boone, feels much the same. She wants to have a record of the many different worlds inside her high school. “MySpace does not really catalog all of your school,” she says. “It’s not a good log of what it was like in your high school experience.”

Some historians agree. While Twitter can help sneak messages out of repressive countries, archivists worry that virtual forms of social discourse are replacing the ritual of writing down one’s thoughts about another in a face-to-face exchange.

Vibert White, a history professor at the University of Central Florida who specializes in public histories of everyday people, says yearbooks are reliable “time capsules” whose real value we don’t recognize until later. They preserve language, dress and customs —invaluable records of days easily forgotten.

Fortunately, many of those capsules have been stored at the Orange County Regional History Center. Look at the Boone High Legend of 1954 and you find the snack bar where teens in loafers and white socks hung out, eating 12-cent hot dogs and sipping 25-cent shakes. And though the local sports rivalries were fierce then, so too was the era’s concern for manners and decorum. A large banner at a game didn’t scream, Go Braves! Crush Eagles! It wagged a chiding finger at opposing fans. “We don’t boo—how bout you?”


We’ll always remember that smile!!

The future of yearbooks is hard to predict. In an effort to stay relevant, Boone High’s 2009 yearbook included a supplement that examines issues that students face today—marijuana use, sex, cheating on boyfriends and girlfriends and fake IDs. It’s removable to appease parents who find it too controversial.

Already there are yearbooks that come out on DVD as well as in print. And somebody is bound to create online editions with interactive messaging, a technological breakthrough that likely would make the traditional edition go the way of the hardbound encyclopedia. In the meantime, the tangible yearbook remains a thread of continuity in the high school experience. Knowing your pals held your book in their hands, paused to think about what to say and left a handwritten note (no matter how ridiculous). . . well, it would be a sad day to see that feeling erased by the Internet.

The West Orange High yearbook adviser, frustrated with the mania for social media, has tried to get skeptics in her classes to see the value of writing something that might endure.

Kimberly Poor tells students about the cherished correspondence she has from long-ago relatives who wrote home while serving in the Civil War or World War II. The letters have been read and re-read by successive generations and hold a treasured place in family lore.

Imagine, she says, you are holding the same paper that a family member held before he or she faced a terrifying life-or-death challenge and on that paper are the handwritten words of a relative worried that he or she may never see home again.

A comment in a yearbook is not as powerful as a war letter, but it’s a good place to start, Poor says, if you want to consider writing something more permanent than a text message about where to meet friends at 4 p.m.

She asks her students: “What are you going to leave to your family, some deleted e-mail files?”

We’ll keep you forever

Leafing through the still solid and venerable Bobcat of Hungerford Preparatory High in 1954 might leave you a bit sad.

The historic Eatonville high school, founded more than 100 years ago, just closed its doors. It’s poignant to look at photos of those trying to publish the old yearbook —their stories written on manual typewriters, their pages laid out and designed on a blackboard with chalk. There’s a librarian described as an inspiration; a Science Club with its beakers and skeletons; and the Hi-Y club loading a pickup truck with baskets of food to distribute at Thanksgiving.

Roderick Hollingsworth is one of a few dozen students who made up the school’s 2009 senior class, its final group of graduates. He loved the family atmosphere and the strong link the school kept to a past when African-American students in the area had little chance at a higher education except through Hungerford.

At 18, he finds it unsettling to think that even before he starts college at Florida A&M he can see his high school receding into the past. He regrets waiting until his senior year to buy a yearbook.

 “There’s a sense,” Roderick says, “of realizing that it’s not going to be a school anymore. I should have been documenting and remembering those times.”

Although his 2009 annual still has its new-book smell and the ink is barely dry on the handwritten comments, Roderick already envisions it as a way to hold onto a fading era.

“When you have a yearbook,” he says, “you have it forever.”

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