Holding Your Applause

After fifteen years, I am learning when to go on auto-pilot and turn things “off” when I need them to be so.  Today was no exception, except it was an exception.  I was slapped back to reality by one of my students, S. who raised his hand after flyers from the city were passed out.


S., pleasingly quickwitted in a manner that’s already gained my attention in the young school year, is openly questioning the efficacy of such a morning.  I laugh, whetherappropriate or not, because he gets it.  And so do I.  Auto-pilot has been shut off, I realize that the class is running late.  But because auto-pilot is off, I start thinking about it–if the sponsoring charity doesn’t quite get the implication of linking a pancake breakfast to diabetes tests, then what about the implication of going to a major school function with nary a camera on sight to record what is about to take place?  That realization suddenly strikes me as similarly disconnected.

Over the summer, whether due to far too many repeat viewings of Inception or not, I am in what I immediately identify as a dream.  Actually, I don’t, a former colleague, who arrives a la “Mr. Charles” in the film, is calmly, as is her way, telling me I am dreaming.  She is trying to keep me from wasting time gearing up for another year of not working on my school’s yearbook. She makes legitimate and valid points, the most important being is that there are no yearbook advisers left at my school.  A huge chunk of my teaching life for 9 years has gone;  I am not going to lie when I admit that I feel like my connection to my school feels so much looser than it once it did, as the work on yearbook represented the one positive contribution that I know I made to each school year.

We finally arrive at the school’s multipurpose room to listen to speeches from candidates for Student Council offices.  Once there, we’re instructed to “hold our applause” often, but glancing around as my students get situated, I can see that what’s not being held are cameras.  There are none there to document the event.

Once upon a time, I would have had kids recording the event, because it was significant for the kids taking part in the event on the stage.  Having also once been a student council adviser myself, I half-pay attention, but I try to go back on auto-pilot, because the reality is that I am watching an opportunity for good photographs being missed.  Even one of my colleagues, who often rescues student functions by photographing everything, therefore providing some historical record, had either forgotten her camera, already taken her pictures before my class and I arrived in the multipurpose room, or just chose to sit this event out.

I wonder, if a school event takes place, and no one is there to record it, does it really happen?

As a yearbook adviser, I preached the notion that “you can’t have a year, without a yearbook”.  The school still has one to sell each year, but if the intent was to make money, the difference in cost between what I had done and what is sold now is marginal, at best. School yearbooks can’t really be true fundraisers and we learned to be happy when we broke even.  But somehow, when it’s felt that a profit needs to be made, in my mind, it begs the question as to whether or not it is now even more important that the significant events of a given year needs to have someone there to record it on film.   I learned, early in the process of creating school yearbooks, that the photo is even more powerful that any words we could add to support the photos.

By training and outlook, I view things as a historian might.  Working at a school that wasamongst the first in the district to be built after the Second World War, working with a colleague who had the longest tenure in district history (50+ years), becoming a consistent part of the larger community outside the school boundaries are things that I find important, as do a number of my colleagues.  In my room, I have boxes of old print photos from my early teaching days at the school.  In our school library, we have boxes of old yearbooks and class photos, some dating back to the late 1940s, in deteriorating cartons that demand proper preservation.  At one time another colleague and I proposed trying to preserve so many elements of our school’s collective memory, various reasons prevented us from moving forward, not the least of which was the limits of the technology that we had on site.

This obsession with photographs on my part isn’t a nostalgia kick, it’s preserving what’s important.  To see a former student use her experience with me to become editor of her high school yearbook, or to see another former student’s website with original photographs she’s taken, or even still another’s photos on her Facebook page, is to be reminded of the learning that went beyond the books we opened or the papers we wrote in the classroom.  Literacy can be measured in so many ways, and in failing to value the visual literacy that the exercise in publication/journalism provides, we’ve allowed students to miss out on those experiences that opens doors for them in an outside world were too many doors are closing rapidly as it is.  Over the summer, Eileen Reynolds, in The New Yorker, commented:

I wouldn’t argue that yearbooks are nearly as important as either math classes or marching bands, but isn’t it possible that there’s something about them that’s worth salvaging? Some teensy weensy shred of educational value?

If there is one, it’s that the yearbook, along with the high-school newspaper, provides one of the very first opportunities for the budding journalist to try her hand at publishing. There are stories to write, pages to lay out, ads to sell, and, of course, photographs to take. My own middle-school yearbook was a slim, shoddy mess, full of grammatical errors, misspelled words, and even a few unidentified portraits. High school brought the opposite: a sleek, carefully edited and meticulously indexed volume that, with two hundred pages of ads, was as thick and hefty as a phone book. I didn’t work on the yearbook staff at either school, but I like to think that the students who did learned something about the staggering amount of work that goes into putting together a large-scale publication. Finishing on deadline is one thing; feeling proud of what you’ve made is quite another.

The irony of Reynolds’ comments though, are that they appear in a larger think piece about declining sales of school yearbooks in general.  Sales are declining, and in the middle of recession, it’s even harder to justify to ask parents to pay for something that seems like a luxury in the face of belt-tightening.  In other words, sales were difficult enough for our yearbook staff when the economy was in the housing bubble;  now, in a recession approaching a double dip, how can we ask parents to help the school make a profit through selling yearbooks?

And, even if something is sold that’s meant to make a profit, wouldn’t a parent be desiring a quality product that represents the entire school year?  Not just made from photos taken right before publication deadline?  Ultimately, the photographs are what my wife and I discussed last week about what might be taking place at her school, where the cost of buying a yearbook has to be factored in to the reality that, in most cases, a yearbook would only feature a particular student once, twice, maybe 3 times, if they were in multiple organizations at the elementary school level, in order for the book to feature as many other students as they could.  (That was a standard that myself and my yearbook partner adhered when we worked on it.)

This article explains some of the choices of the type that my wife has steered me to consider for the 2012-2013 school year, and to give my opinion.

Come late March, e-mails will come begging to photos for events that, once upon a time, I would have had my staff cover as they were happening on the campus.  Events like today, for instance.

“Hold applause, yes”, I share out loud to no one in particular, as I look around to see if anything is getting recorded.    But it’s not my call any more.   In the long run though, as the articles decrying the yearbook’s death suggest, perhaps this was inevitable?  Certainly the reality (as well as bad dreams over the summer) are making me face this reality, auto-pilot or not.

I returning to the moment in front of me on the stage–all that work, the angst, the fear, and the emotion that went into the speeches, unrecorded.  It’s a shame for the Council advisers and their young charges both.


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