I’ve never advocated for wholesale destruction of memorabilia. In fact, I advise people against tossing photos and artifacts immediately following a divorce or other major relationship rupture. “Put it away for now,” I say, trusting that as the hurt subsides, judgement will settle in and a better decision will be made down the road. After all, these things tell a story about us too. When the story that’s told represents a long-past chapter that wasn’t happy and that doesn’t deserve to be relived, as is the case with many of our yearbooks, making a decision to toss or edit them can be empowering.
My yearbooks are those life artifacts that have been with me ever since my mother cleaned out the bedroom closet I’d occupied in her house as a teenager. They’ve moved with me from city to city, finding their way to a closet bookshelf during my more organized periods, or remaining in a cardboard box during the years when I was less so.
I’ve pulled them out occasionally, seen the smiling or brooding faces in headshots, the group photos of various teams and organizations, and the candids of kids I barely remember engaged in various activities. Peppered throughout the yearbooks are optimistic words about the fun and rigor of campus life and extracurricular activities.
And I feel…nothing: no nostalgia, no sense of connection, no real experience of this as a representation of my life.
For a time, I wondered why I didn’t feel something more when I saw pictures of us. After all, aren’t yearbooks supposed to bring us back to our Breakfast Club moments of finding our way between childhood and our adult years with a bunch of people going through the same thing? Shouldn’t we at least experience a grudging acceptance that the hard lessons learned during that time helped shape us into something better?
Certainly, there are those for whom high school was a fun experience. My work as a counselor though has taught me that for many, many others of us, high school memories cluster around things like:
Teen depression, which didn’t have a name at the time when people my age were experiencing it;
Drug abuse to escape the depression;
Eating disorders that won us praise for being “in shape;”
Betrayal by people we thought were friends;
Living in a violent home;
Accepting sex when we really wanted love;
Date rape in which our choices about either sex or love were taken away;
Humiliation when our secrets were told;
Isolation when we had no one we could trust to hear us;
Our experiences as kids who were cast out as different, weird, freaks, Other; and the belief that we were the only ones experiencing the real and very intense pain of exclusion.
Of course, a yearbook wouldn’t and shouldn’t feature these truths. A yearbook’s function after all is to capture the fun memories that occur in a school year. To recast a painful adolescence though as a happy period filled with team spirit and youthful optimism is the ultimate gaslighting.
If the memories that are evoked by perusing a yearbook aren’t joyous but are instead either painful or simply stale, the yearbook no longer has a function in our lives.
Sure, we’re reluctant to throw something away that can’t be replaced. Consider this though: you’ve already got the living memories of your adolescence, and hopefully some of these are happy. Also, who says you have to toss the entire yearbook? My friend Jim suggests cutting out the pictures you want and if you’re feeling especially creative, making your own yearbook complete with whatever you have on hand that memorializes this period of your life. Your memories and however you wish to create artifacts to represent them are your living yearbook, the only one that really matters.
You can even make a ceremony in tossing all or some of the yearbook you don’t want as a reclaiming of your right to tell your story. After all, do you really need to hold onto someone else’s telling of the story for your life, particularly when it’s a distortion of the reality you know you had?