A high school yearbook editor reflects on the tumultuous year she had to document

What happens when photos of events are never taken? Or when the events never take place themselves?

Photograph by Jackie Russo, National Geographic
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Cate Engles poses for a portrait in her bedroom in Akron, Ohio. A 2020 graduate of Hathaway Brown in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she is taking a gap year to organize volunteers for her county's Democratic Party. She will begin her freshman year at Harvard University in the fall of 2021.

Photograph by Jackie Russo, National Geographic

A high school yearbook editor reflects on the tumultuous year she had to document

What happens when photos of events are never taken? Or when the events never take place themselves?

I was editing my high school’s yearbook in March when news of school cancellations erupted in our classroom. Even remotely, we did produce a publication. But just like the year has been, the yearbook is uncommon. That’s evident from the first pages.

Dedication

There will be a different kind of dedication for this yearbook. We dedicated it to the healthcare workers who risked their lives on the frontlines during the height of the pandemic and who continue to sacrifice their lives and time to cure those affected by the coronavirus. While many of us stayed home to protect ourselves and each other, they worked tirelessly for our safety. We thank them for inspiring us and showing us what it means to be a leader in times of difficulty.

Students

A yearbook starts with the headshots of the eldest class and each younger grade follows after. Occasionally accompanying the spreads are collages full of candid photos of happy students. To function properly, a yearbook should serve as a time capsule of the year. Students from all grades and all clubs and groups should be represented throughout, to remind our future selves of this time in our lives. What happens, though, when photos of events are never taken? Or when the events never take place themselves? Documenting students’ lives “virtually” makes it difficult to capture our memories—so instead, we must document the year honestly in the best way we can. (Follow high school grads as they say goodbye to a senior year stolen by coronavirus.)

As I was editing yearbook content, coronavirus headlines had been gradually seeping into school hallways for weeks. Yet when the virus crossed over the borders of Italy in early March, there was still denial that our community would be infected. Then rumors of online school began to arrive, as the hand sanitizer bottles on our lunch tables did.

Soon my classmates and I were waking up five minutes before morning assembly to see our teachers through our computers. To be honest, I found online schooling to be a much-needed break. As a senior, I felt some relief from the stress of the year when I was able to sleep in a little longer and attend class in my pajamas. My school didn’t have much of the academic year left to finish; in several weeks, I had officially graduated—from home. (My generation grew up online. Endless ‘virtual life’ would be terrifying.)

The entire high school ended the year a lot like how we appear in the yearbook: divided by small barriers but close enough to be deemed a class. Individually, we made our way through the last weeks of school. We were disheartened by the circumstances, but our unity did not waiver. The commonalities of our school’s student life changed drastically in such little time, but spirits remained high with the help of some humor and Zoom calls to stay in touch. (Are we 'Generation Screwed'? Not necessarily.)

Athletics

If you played a Fall or Winter sport this year: congratulations! You made it into the yearbook. For my fellow Spring athletes, though, I offer sincere condolences. Those pages will likely be empty in yearbooks across the country. Perhaps they will have quotes of disappointed athletes who aimed to break school records, defeat their rivals, or be on a team one last time. Regardless, I will miss seeing photos of high-fives on the field and smiles at the end of races.

My season cancellation this year was difficult to handle. My teammates and I held on, as we thought maybe we would still compete at track meets after a temporary break. It wasn’t until we were well into summer that the realization of an ending arrived, when our honorary varsity track letters were delivered. With sports being such large parts of many students’ lives, a lot of disappointment was evident at my school. For underclassmen, these cancellations were an opportunity to train better and harder for next season. As for the seniors, though, the lack of a season will truly teach us how important communities like teams are to us.

Events

I think this year will teach many kids to never skip out on school-sponsored events, no matter how cliché or cringe-igniting they may seem. For the 2019-2020 school year, those who attended homecoming weekend festivities in the fall are most likely grateful that they did. I sure am. When I reflect on homecoming now, I’m glad that I took advantage of the Fall festivities since there would be none in the Spring.

Not returning after spring break crushed many hopes. No school meant that there would be no proms and no end-of-the-year celebrations. Forget prom dress sales; instead, face masks and bandanas became the season’s fashion favorites, and disinfectant wipes and sanitizers were the accessories.

But for many, more important events took the place of the traditional ones. High school students in states all across the country attended protests, because protecting the civil liberties of our friends when they’re denied trumps going to prom any day. Instead of worrying over dresses and dates and corsages, our high school generation dedicated their weekends to fighting for justice where it is long overdue. In the grand scheme of things, school events are inconsequential compared to events that change history’s narrative. There won’t be yearbook photos of Spring dances this year, but maybe someday there will be newspaper articles about the impact this generation had on the world.

Seniors

An estimated 3.7 million seniors graduated from high school this year in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. There were no proper graduations, but there were signs in yards that proclaimed a senior lived there. We had online commencements, cap and gown deliveries, and a lot of people who pitied us. Many seniors did not see the ending that they had envisioned for themselves. Rather, they had to begin a new stage in their lives amidst a pandemic, making hard choices and reimagining their role in the world.

I graduated in June and was immediately thrust into a world that didn’t care about senior traditions, cumulative GPAs, and college plans. For this next part of our lives, my classmates and I have responsibilities that feel unlike those of past generations, and opportunities to make critical changes in the world we live in currently. Whether it’s working on a degree that will help you become the next civil rights lawyer or taking a year to help with environmental clean-up, many in the class of 2020 are devoted to bettering their communities. A graduation ceremony does not need to occur for people to tell us how proud they are or what great things we are going to do. This most recent class is already doing them.

Faculty

The final section of the yearbook, for our school and others, includes the photos of our cherished teachers. Their placement in the book does not do justice to their importance to the school—not least because, in a moment of crisis, they adjusted everything to transition to online learning. Having their photos in our yearbook will matter a lot to me several years in the future when I reflect on my senior year.

There are so many thank yous I would have liked to give in-person to the people who made colossal impacts on my life. My gratitude for my teachers is immense; I hope they know that, although we have officially graduated, their effect on us will last as long as a yearbook does. I, for one, cannot wait to dust mine off years from now and be reminded of this untraditional yet remarkable year.