The first time I fell in love with a yearbook, I was on a first date with someone else. It was one of those get-coffee-and-walk-around dates, and we stumbled upon a little antique shop tucked between a sushi restaurant and a record store. Just below street level, Antelope Antiques had shelves piled high with oddities and windows that occasionally went dark when the foot traffic on Liberty Street got heavy. I made a beeline for the bins of loose polaroids (did I mention I collect old photos, too?), but another section soon caught my eye: stacks of high school and college yearbooks, many of which were covered in signatures, to my absolute glee. In a spell of excitement my date probably found slightly insane, I showed her a thin yearbook I’d found from 2002, The Midnight Sun. It was full of frosted tips and bad Photoshop and mortifyingly intimate messages written in glitter gel pen. If she hadn’t been there to drag me out, I’d have popped a squat right there in the middle of the store and read the whole thing, cover to cover. The coffee date was lovely but the real prize was this gem, Community High’s 2001-2002 yearbook, “On and Off the Wall.”
(We didn’t end up going on a second date, but about a year later, I interviewed her for a writing project inspired by that same yearbook, so time really is just a flat circle.)
What drew me to this particular publication was its grungy look. I’ve always judged books by their covers, and this one was no exception. Yearbooks provide an opportunity for students to craft a narrative about the past school year, see the last nine months through the lens of a theme. In 2002, this theme was “On and Off the Wall,” a grimy, distressed ode to individuality. Throughout the volume, the phrase off the wall (possibly inspired by the popularity of skate culture in the early ’00s) is used as a nod to Community High School’s unique traditions and pedagogical philosophy. Here’s a bit of the book’s introductory blurb:
As opposed to the philosophies of other high schools in Ann Arbor, a personalized style of teaching, freedom for students to direct their own learning, and a creative environment to grow in marked the foundation of our institution. Based on these radical ideals, nearly three decades later Community students still strive to defy the norm. […] We determine our own directions. We are off the wall.
Affectionately nicknamed “Commie High,” Ann Arbor’s Community High School is a masterclass in alternative public education, with small class sizes, flexible grading, and a completely open campus. Last year, 7 Cylinders Studio released Welcome to Commie High, a documentary that details the school’s radical philosophy and the way it’s changed the lives of the students lucky enough to be admitted via random lottery. It’s available to rent online if you’d like to learn more. (Want me to do a deep dive into CHS? I’m down! Sound off in the comments or respond to this email!)
Even without intimate knowledge of Community’s history, it’s clear to see that they do things a little differently. There are events (a spring field day, a Halloween masquerade, a multi-cultural feast), class trips, student artwork, and creative courses like their jazz and dance programs. Even the annual student portraits are casual and full of character. Here are some of my favorites:
It would have been enough to find a groovy yearbook with an interesting cover design from a fascinating school. It would have been enough to flip through pages of smiling faces and marvel at how much has changed since 2002 (and how much has stayed the same). But this book had an amazing surprise hidden between its covers: a raw, real-life coming-of-age narrative. Just like the friendly, close-knit environment created within Community’s walls, this particular copy of “On and Off the Wall” became a space for radical affection and honesty.
This yearbook contains signatures from only nine people, seven of which are female underclassmen (eight, if you count an unattributed message I have a hunch about). But the stories these girls tell with their “congrats, grad!” messages to Justin, the book’s owner, create a web of admiration, longing, and heartbreak I’m surprised anyone would be willing to part with. While each person illuminates Justin’s high school identity in a unique way, I’m going to highlight the three major players in this story: Brita, Kristina, and Lauren.
From the onset, Brita’s relationship with Justin seems pretty cut-and-dry: “You’ve always been an older brother to me, looking out for me and making sure I was being good (especially with Mike ☺),” she writes. This parenthetical caught my eye, as it provides critical insight into what Brita interprets as “brotherly love.” Assuming that Mike is a boyfriend or some sort of romantic interest, Justin has been protective — and possibly possessive — while making sure that her behavior was in check, making sure she was “being good.”
As the inscription continues, Justin’s version of “brotherly love” only becomes more complex. Brita remembers the good times, recalling “I have so much fun with you, Justin. I smoked with you for my first time and I got drunk for the first time at your house. Wow, that’s pretty sweet.” This is a theme we’ll see throughout the signatures, a thread connecting these three girls’ experiences with Justin: when they chill with him, they feel cool, worldly, grown-up. Hanging out with a senior and getting faded? I bet it was pretty sweet.
I would hesitate to call this younger-sister-older-brother dynamic a worrisome power imbalance, or to say that Justin knowingly associates with younger girls. After all, everybody’s high school experience is different, and the crowd you run with during adolescence can say very little about who you really are. Luckily, I don’t need to say any of that; Brita does it for me. “P.S. Maybe next year you can move onto juniors… or… seniors?? ☺ Just kidding,” she jokes at the bottom of the page. Yeah, maybe.
Writing in Justin’s yearbook is a big deal for Kristina — her nerves are practically vibrating off the page (and a half!). “Umm yea, I really have no idea what to say,” she begins. “This is your yearbook and I’m supposed to write something meaningful, but I don’t know what to say. […] I’m at a loss for words because too many thoughts and memories enter my mind.” Little interludes like this remind me why I find yearbook inscriptions so fascinating: they have the potential to be so emotionally honest. Kristina doesn’t have to let Justin know she has so many thoughts and feelings inside her that she doesn’t know where to start. But Justin is leaving school and this feels like an ending; this is her last chance to say everything she’s been holding in.
So she does. She recounts the first night she and Justin talked on the phone, a night she was “completely shitfaced.” Turns out, that was the same night he met and began pursuing her best friend, which Kristina says is “sweet ☺” but doesn’t seem to mean it. “I gotta tell you though, J, that month or two where you guys were together were some of the hardest months EVER for me,” she admits in a moment of raw emotion that cuts me to the core every time I read it. She uses humor to brush aside her feelings, but the hurt is still so potent: “I guess that I learned an important lesson from that: never introduce you to my best friends. Ha.”
“I honestly don’t think you will understand how much I need you in my life. Seriously, me writing in your yearbook is not going to come close to describing what you mean to me.” Once again, Kristina acknowledges her inscription as an attempt to spill the feelings overflowing inside her onto a page, and that the words in Justin’s yearbook pale in comparison to what’s in her heart. She ends by thanking Justin for driving her to Brita’s house during a moment of need, joking that “you don’t always give me rides when I want it (unless I’m topless).”
“It’s been a year, a pretty eventful year,” Lauren begins. “I don’t regret what we’ve been through.” Just like Kristina, Lauren lays it all out on the line, expressing her gratitude and relief that “we’re not strangers anymore.” She and Justin didn’t speak for two whole months, almost a quarter of the school year, so this reconnection right before he leaves for college is even more meaningful.
One of the most telling — and most memorable — lines appears in the middle of Lauren’s inscription: “You always know that if I’m home… I have an open window.” It really drives home this message of emotional availability; all of the girls are enthusiastically offering an ear, a shoulder to cry on, an open heart, and even an open window to Justin. Lauren is making herself completely accessible to him — not only is it okay if he calls, but she’s hoping that, at some point, he’ll want to be around her enough to spontaneously climb through her window for a one-on-one chat. “J, I am always going to have a soft spot for you,” she admits.
It’s clear that, at one point, they were romantically involved, and while I have no idea what happened, it still breaks my heart when she blames herself for their estrangement, hoping that “you can find it in you to forgive me for not being me.” Near the end, Lauren mentioning that “You still owe my house a ‘TP,’ and you owe my sister ice cream, you promised” strikes me as particularly melancholy, like a real ending; she’s trying to tie up loose ends before losing Justin to post-grad life. Still, she throws a Hail Mary, hoping he’ll prioritize her feelings one last time: “Instead of me calling you all the time… you call me up, you have the number ☺.”
And this is it, the tiny little detail that shatters me:
Not only does Lauren write in blue glitter pen, but she then traces over each letter with different colored felt-tip markers. The blue pen isn’t fading or running out of ink; this is a purely decorative touch. I can only assume that she had a lot of time alone with Justin’s yearbook and wanted to make her message memorable. You can see the time she puts into every loop, every line, every dot. She really cares.
(In the future, I plan to share photos of yearbook signatures in their entirety. However, due to the sensitive nature of these inscriptions, I’ve chosen to only include typed excerpts. I know that’s pretty hypocritical, given that I basically own someone else’s memories… feel free to complain in the comments or send me a strongly-worded email!)
The thought that arose when I first encountered this copy of The Midnight Sun, the one that sticks in my mind like a piece of chewed gum beneath a cafeteria table, is How could someone leave this behind? This yearbook is remarkable not only in its candor but in its recency — less than twenty years old! All of these people — Brita, Kristina, Lauren, Justin, and the other folks who signed his yearbook — are supposedly out there in the world, living their lives, blithely unaware that I keep their teenage feelings in a box beside my rollerskates. There are three women out there who still remember an older boy they loved in high school, and a man who once surrounded himself with the adoration of teenage girls.
Just like any collection of yearbook signatures, the portrait these ones paint of Justin is bound to be incomplete. But for me, this find was never about him; it was about the girls who needed him to know how they felt. Their emotional inscriptions awakened something in me I had buried when my own high school experience ended, something I wrote about when I first purchased the book:
I feel a cognitive dissonance between being protective of and scared for these fifteen-year-old girls, LITERAL CHILDREN, and still remembering how in love I felt at fifteen, how real and serious and big everything felt, the types of love letters I wrote and never sent.
Fifteen-year-old me didn’t see the power imbalances present between myself and my older friends. Hanging out with “more mature” boys made her feel cool, too. Being desired made her feel special, and, god, she’d do anything to feel that way. Sometimes, her feelings were so big that it seemed like if she couldn’t get them down on paper, she’d explode.
Maybe it was a self-indulgent purchase, this first yearbook. But the story it contains is the realest thing I’ve ever read, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees myself in this piece of memorabilia. When you signed the yearbook of that one special person, did you have the guts to tell them how you really felt? What do you wish you had said? And what do you wish you’d kept to yourself?