As a collector of things that were once valuable to other, more distant people, I feel as if my collecting is rather intrusive. I read other people's books. I read their letters. I admire their postcards. I wear their jewelry. I stare at their photographs: mentally critiquing their clothes, stance and expressions – as if I might still contact them and offer a lesson or two in self-improvement. I really am so dreadfully nosey.
One other thing I intrude upon is past graduations, prying into the earnest thoughts and faces of students from long ago. I collect yearbooks.
The first one I ever bought was from 1914, owned by Catherine Stewart, and I hope she doesn't mind. It commemorated the class of Hyde Park High School, in Chicago. It was called 'The Aitchpe' and cost me $5.00 (it is interesting to note that a member of the following year's graduating class was Amelia Earhart…and that book has been valued at $3,500).
How serious those 17 and 18 year-olds were! Back then, youth was a shortcut to adulthood, not a time to pause and gambol. They were proud to be at school: not every child was guaranteed a high school education – admission would be a product of their hard work, yes, but of the sacrifices made by their parents, too. Many sons instead stayed home to help their fathers, to become clerks for the family business. Daughters stayed home to cut the crusts of tea sandwiches.
Their somber faces reflected how they felt a grown-up should look. There were no youthful fashions: boys wore ties and starched collars, girls wore a fichu of lace around their necks, or possibly a moderate ruffle. They wanted their school to be a microcosm of thte adult world. Their portraits were either demure or dramatic – many of the girls had perfected a dark, theatrical profile – while only a flip few allowed themselves a suggestion of a smile.
What I found especially charming about this book was that next to each photo was not only the name, college-to-be, list of teams of clubs, but a quotation – a careful choice of the student's, no doubt. Some I recognized, but others were complete mysteries – perhaps a line from a favorite book, long out-of-print?
"Only seven days a week to primp!"
"So sweet and fair, but on the square."
"Quiet and solitary as an oyster."
"Cupid is a knavish lad,/Thus to make poor maidens mad." (oh, Kenneth Moore – soon to grace the University of Chicago!)
What quotation would you choose?
Signatures had not yet developed to the heights attained when I was in junior and high school, and was signing in every book, 'When you get married and get a divorce/Come to my stable and marry my horse.' No, a signature was usually just a name, and occasionally a verse or a thought, painfully sincere:
'Count me as a brick in your chimney of friendship.'
'The world is so full of a thousand things/I am sure we should all be as happy as kings.' (from Dorothy 'Higgie' Higgins)
And Maud Ayer asks, 'N'oubliez pas votre amie dans la classe de Francais.'
The curriculum was elaborate: besides the injuries to relaxation that one has come to expect from school, there was Botany, Astronomy, Political Economy, Latin, Debating, Zoology, Forge, Sewing (teaching girls to 'make and wash silk dresses, spring and winter hats, and a complete set of undergarments'), Civics ('The purpose of the study of Civics is to make intelligent citizens.')…
There were clubs:
The Senior Girls Society began the new year with a 'Baby Party.' The football party featured a duet by 'Mutt an Chop.'
The Junior Girls Society presented 'Hyde Park's World Renowned Circus', which included clowns that 'afforded continual amusement.'
The French Club featured charades.
The Pythagorean Club encountered some trouble with more advanced mathematics, such as College Algebra and Trigonometry.
The Honor Society found the current thought amongst teachers that they 'should trust to the honesty of the student' was impractical, and 'exhorted the instructors' to do otherwise and to 'destroy in every way possible the opportunity and incentive to cheat.'
The Astronomy Society called their subject 'the most sublime of the sciences.'
This tiny hothouse of self-importance and impatience! New adults quick-grown within a petri dish of auditoriums and brick!
All of this – to fall victim to a War that would begin in less than a month. And in less than three years the boys in this yearbook would be young men, signing up to do their duty, to be sent to the forests of the Meuse-Argonne, to stumble through the early mist at Chateau Thierry, to march through the tangle of Belleau Wood, to follow the French tanks into Cantigny…