May is finally upon us, which means the end of the school year is looming happily on the horizon for the students of our community. For seniors in particular, this also means acquiring a yearbook, that annual volume that celebrates the highlights and achievements of the past school year.

As a self-proclaimed faux journalist, I was determined to learn more about the yearbooks of today, so I ventured to the high school to meet with 2022 chief editor Isabel Wollangk and the rest of the Yahara staff. They convinced me that yearbooks are not only surviving but flourishing in today’s digital age. So far, 570 copies of this year’s edition have been ordered for the May 24 release, and they go for $60.

Today’s yearbooks bear scant resemblance to the publications from my day, boasting sophisticated graphics, vivid colors and thousands of color photos. The editors work with designers from a company called Pictavo, who provide templates and advice for the overall design.

Seniors get to submit their own photos now, posing in attractive natural settings with trees, stressed barnwood or a graffiti-covered wall serving as a backdrop. Sometimes they’re personalized with the inclusion of something that emphasizes their interests, like a guitar, pet or motorcycle.

Photo captions are now optional and students get to provide their own, which run the gamut from inspirational to hip in-jokes with a lot of quotes from Michael Scott and other cast members of “The Office” for some reason.

Some organizations have always been there, like FFA, German Club and Forensics, but others are new such as Undivided, a club devoted to advocating for diversity. There’s also a section called “Senior Superlatives” which allows the student population to vote on such topics as “Most likely to win the Hunger Games” or “Most likely to sleep through graduation.”

In general, the entire student population seems to have a lot more input than they did in my day. I pulled out my Class of 1971 yearbook to compare. It bore an unfortunate resemblance to the famous National Lampoon Yearbook parody released in 1973 but without any of the humor. The cover was designed by a budding artist obviously smitten with Salvador Dali featuring biomorphic letters that spell out “Yahara” slinking across a minimalist landscape.

I am very familiar with the artist and recall him being quite taken with his own cleverness at the time. It has not aged well.

And the senior photos! Ours were required to be taken by Art Wendt of the Art Wendt Studio. Each of us posed gazing at some unseen point in the near distance, airbrushed in glorious black and white until we all resembled wax figures at a Wisconsin version of Madame Tussauds. And we weren’t allowed to write our own Senior quotes. They were assigned to us by the yearbook staff, who had a cruel streak and access to something I imagined as the Golden Book of Cornpone Aphorisms.

Every year some unfortunate girl got assigned, “Quite quiet, quite nice” while a more popular girl would hit the jackpot with “Beauty brains and social whirl all belong to this lucky girl.” Other brain twisters included “School is just like bread-it’s a four year loaf,” “A girl of the IN Generation,” “A man of fine merits” and the future resume entry, “They don’t call me the king of tractor pulls for nothing.”

And some of our organizations were downright unusual. FHA (Future Homemakers of America) had 36 members. GFW (Girls for Wrestling) had 40 members. The snowmobile club photo had over 100 members, although I don’t recall anyone actually owning a snowmobile. This was the days of the counterculture, so it was easy to find a young faculty member willing to sponsor a fake organization. I think this accounts for the existence of the Voyeurs Club, which had the same members as the Science Club minus the females.

There’s always been a tradition of having classmates write something inspirational or glib in each other’s yearbook. I quit that tradition my senior year, mostly because my blockhead male friends all wrote the same thing; “Don’t let your meat loaf.” Now there’s a testament to the virtues of a quality education.

I spent some time flipping through the large collection of old yearbooks. Here’s some random observations:

- In 1918 the high school made military training compulsory for all able bodied male students.

- In 1924 a page called Dippy Dope featured this joke; “We suggest that some college offer a course in Domestic Silence for Women.”

- The 1930 Glee Club operetta was entitled “The Feast of the Red Corn.”

- In 1943 the motto of GAA (Girls Athletic Association) was “We Build Bodies for Uncle Sam.”

- In 1962 there was a school Rifle Club.

A yearbook is a physical artifact that consists of memories frozen in time, a testament to a class’s pride, solidarity and uniqueness. It’s an object that will be with you the rest of your life, whether as a tome to your idealized youth or as an annoying tic you just can’t shake.

And they’re not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Bill Amundson is a Stoughton-based artist and substitute teacher.

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