The Dirty Yearbook: A High-School Rite Of Passage


It’s that time of year again: the season of the high school yearbook controversy. And while parents appear shocked by each new drug reference or “inappropriate” quote, doesn’t every yearbook get somebody in trouble?

One of this year’s yearbook stories is pretty perplexing: K.C. Salter, an English teacher at Knightstown High School in Indiana, was fired for trying to add a “pregnant girls” section to the school’s yearbook. Principal Scott Ritchie apparently got involved when a student protested being photographed for the section, and Salter won’t be coming back to work next year. It’s not clear why Salter thought such a section would be a good idea — the most charitable interpretation might be that he wanted to destigmatize teen pregnancy — but whatever the case, it seems wise to bar him from further yearbook work (oddly, he still gets to help with this year’s edition, albeit under “supervision”).

A more typical story of yearbook offense comes from Massaponax High School in Virginia. Their yearbook included a section of anonymous “confessions” ranging from “I once did so much pot that I woke up high” to “I’m pregnant with my best friend’s boyfriend’s kid.” Laura L. Hutchison of adds, “Also throughout the yearbook, in large font, are ‘Quotable Quotes,’ many containing sexual innuendoes.” Parents, of course, are up in arms, and the principal has stopped distribution of the yearbook. He’s also trying “collect the copies that were distributed at an after-school party” a few weeks ago, which sounds like a thankless task if there ever was one.

It’s a familiar tale — at least to me. Throughout high school, I kept a notebook of funny things said by my teachers and classmates — plenty of them including intentional or unintentional “sexual innuendos.” Senior year, the yearbook staff and I decided to run the “best” (according to our limited teenage judgment) quotes as a crawl along the bottom of each page. The predictable result: our entire print run was impounded and locked in a storage closet, and we had to reprint an entire expurgated version. We of course distributed the original version on CD, but we had wasted a lot of money and paper, and over time I came to feel pretty stupid about the whole thing.

My biggest regret about my yearbook debacle was embarrassing other kids who may not have wanted their utterances set down for posterity. The whole spirit of my quotebook was a little mean and childish, and part of its humor came from humiliating others — still a favorite source of laughter for teens, as evinced by the Massaponax yearbook, but not a very healthy or kind one. Part of the fun, though, and a part I feel less bad about, had to do with pushing boundaries, with cursing and talking about sex in an official school publication. And the people who were most angry were those who had the most stake in keeping those boundaries in place.

Massaponax Principal Joe Rodkey said of his school’s offending tome, “The students, the school and this community deserve a better yearbook than what I have.” His word choice is telling — a yearbook isn’t just for kids. It’s also for grownups, and grownups tend to want certain kind of image of kids’ lives. One Massaponax mom said, “I was appalled, and I’m not a prude. I know what kids do.” Which may be true, but she probably doesn’t want to see it. She complained of the absence of “pictures of the football team, or of JV field hockey” — wholesome things to remember her child’s high school experience by. It’s natural for parents and school officials to want a yearbook that elides the grittier side of teenage life, for the same reason they don’t usually frame photos of their kids flipping the bird. But it’s equally natural for teens — especially those about to graduate and separate themselves for their parents — to challenge the expectation that they behave “appropriately,” and to express the aspects of their lives most likely to piss adults off.

Broadsheet’s Tracy Clark-Flory writes of the Massaponax yearbook, “Why not be grateful for an uncensored glimpse of the young adult world and use it as a conversation starter? I must say, sometimes the push to protect kids looks a whole lot like a desperate attempt to protect adults’ blissful ignorance.” She has a point — if parents are so shocked by what their kids come up with, maybe it’s time to talk more. At the same time, parental yearbook outrage (except in such bizarre cases as Salter’s) may stem less from ignorance and more from a desire to remember their children’s adolescence in a certain way — well-behaved, polite, and often virginal. This is, of course, the opposite of how many teens want to remember their high school years. While adults usually win the yearbook battle, kids still maintain their own separate memories — and this separation is one more step toward adulthood.

Teacher In ‘Pregnant’ Yearbook Row Fired []
Censoring Teenage Yearbook Confessions [Broadsheet]
H.S. Yearbook Halted []

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