As 2020 draws to a close, this year’s final instalment of the Yearbook Flip series flips to the last pages of yearbooks in search of parting words and messages.
As a historical source, yearbooks are incredibly valuable for insight into the perspectives and experiences of young people at a particular moment in time. Here, as a historian, I look to the photographs and printed words that fill the pages of yearbooks for insight into student life and student experience. Beyond the stories told within their pages, yearbooks are also innate objects, each carrying a material history of their own. As an object, a yearbook is a fascinating material token of memory and nostalgia. To the yearbook’s owner, this object carries the weight of what this part of their life meant to them: the relationships made, the experiences had, the interests cultivated, and the paths chosen. Here, what matters are the bent pages and tattered covers, habitual signs of use; or the personalized markings with pen, pencil or marker, a result of our relentless impulse to leave a mark on the world.
As an example, consider these class photograph pages from a 1959 Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School yearbook. The owner of this particular yearbook chose to checkmark and underline specific names, while crossing out others or leaving them blank. Such markings inevitably spark curiosity. What do these markings tell us about the person to whom this yearbook belongs? What message was this person wanting to leave for their future self flipping through these pages? How would they react to these markings now, would the message be received?
Traditionally, personalized markings are reserved for the last pages of the yearbook: a dedicated space for peers and teachers to perform the coveted act of “signing the yearbook.” This act is not just for anyone, rather, the yearbook owner must seek out and collect exactly whose autograph and message they want eternalized in the back of their yearbook.
Take a look at the last pages in a few select yearbooks in the Museum Collection. As you squint and tilt your head to read the signatures and scribbled messages, consider what these names and words might have meant to whom this yearbook belonged and what their reactions might be to read them now, decades later.
I also can’t help but wonder about the “autograph” pages left blank in some yearbooks. Such pages seem to beg to be written on, and yet, the yearbook owner did not seek out any signees. Was this done intentionally? Did the yearbook owner choose not to want these parting messages and autographs to look back on? Does this yearbook represent a time they’d rather forget? Or, were the final days of their schooling such a whirlwind that they simply forgot? What do these missing markings say, if anything, about this person’s experiences during this era in their life? A blank page can elicit just as much meaning as a page full of words.
Some schools chose not to leave their yearbook legacy in the hands of the students, and instead pre-designed the last pages of the yearbook. Grantham High School, for example, dedicated the last page of many of their yearbooks to an image of the school building – the physical setting where the moments of student life featured in the yearbook took place. Other high schools, like St. Catharines Collegiate, left the last pages of their yearbooks for advertisements and chose not to dedicate any space for parting messages and goodbyes.
As powerful as personalized markings on an object like a yearbook can be, I am particularly moved by the final printed pages of the1968 yearbook from the Mack Training School for Nurses. The signatures of seemingly every graduating nursing student are included, as well as the Florence Nightingale Pledge – a visual reminder of what brought these students together, and the common passion and values they shared.
On the final page of the 1968 Mack Data yearbook, is a poem. Likely written by a graduating student, the poem expresses the feelings of the nursing graduates as they close this chapter of their lives and open the next.
As 2020 draws to a close, what parting words you would like to leave for this year? This year has been incredibly challenging for each of us in many ways, so if your first instinct is to respond with a quip of anger or sarcasm– I don’t blame you. However, I encourage you to dig a little deeper than what you might be comfortable with, and instead consider a message, or even a poem, that will resonate with you upon looking back several years or decades from now. What words do you want to leave your future self to mark this year? What has 2020 taught you? What relationships or connections have you made? What experiences will stick with you? If there is one thing that flipping through yearbooks has reminded me as a historian, it is that we tend to look back on our past much differently than how we looked at those moments when we were experiencing them.
Have a very safe and joyful holiday season, however you celebrate! I look forward to a new year of sharing new stories of St. Catharines history with you!
Sara Nixon is a Public Historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.