Welcome to Big Old Goofy World . . . a place where I can share my thoughts, hopes, and dreams about this rock that we live on and call home.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When Yearbooks Hurt

I graduated from Wheaton Senior High School (Maryland)—Class of 1976.  We were the bicentennial class as it was also the year of our nation’s 200th birthday.  I know that I graduated as a Wheaton Knight because I have the yearbook to prove it.  It is incriminating evidence at its best or worse after you see the pictures of that time and place in my life.  My yearbooks have produced many a laugh at my expense from my children when they have taken the time to glance at those “long ago and forgotten times”.

Yearbooks seem to have that power of nostalgia and humor for those of us who kept them safely hidden away for years.  I have been amazed at the mesmerizing pull of these dusty old tombs when I have browsed through them.  They provoke some powerful memories of good—and bad—times in my life.  They have made me remember old friends who are now long gone in other parts of the country and living their own separate lives.  They have brought tears to my eyes, and they have made me laugh.  They have helped me close some doors that needed to be closed, while at the same time helped me open some others that needed to be opened and explored.  All in all, I cherish my yearbooks and somewhere down the road so will my children as they strive to know their father a little better.

There is no doubt that yearbooks can have an impact on people’s lives and leave a lasting (sometime life-long) impression.  Because of that a yearbook and the people it portrays should be held up with the same kind of respect http://usnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/05/22/11810461-texas-yearbook-labels-some-special-needs-students-mentally-retarded?lite) that anyone would want in his or her own life.  Recently MSN.com (shared a story about a high school that accidentally forgot this when putting out its yearbook this year.  It seems that it was a simple mistake of attempting to do something nice that created more of an uproar than it was meant to do.
The problem?  Inclusiveness . . . or what the yearbook staff thought was going to be inclusion when it made a special and separate two-page section for those students with disabilities attending the school.  This “special needs” section was meant as a way of including those students into the rest of the student body.  The only problem was that the terms that they used to describe these students were what those in the disability advocacy field consider to be “politically incorrect”.  To describe these students such words as “mentally retarded” or “deaf and blind”.  In fact, some individual students were specifically described using these words.  Also, the staff printed individual pictures of the students without receiving permission from the students or their families.  Their best intentions creating a feeling of inclusiveness ended up creating feelings of separation and devaluing.

Granted, I think that it was—as the article explained—an unintentional mistake with no sense of ill-will.  It was a simple mistake.  Luckily a teacher caught the mistake and sought out a solution to remedy the problem.  The school collected all the yearbooks, returned them to the printers, had the two pages removed, and returned them to the students. So, what is the problem?  No big deal right?  Everything worked out for the best in the end . . .

. . . or did it?

The problem is that images and words are powerful and have the ability to taint our minds consciously and unconsciously not only for years to come but for generations to come.  Images and words can become stigmatizing and wound people—often to a point that they can never overcome them.  Don’t believe me?  Take out one of your old yearbooks and start going through the pictures of your fellow classmates.  How would you describe them?  What words would you use?  Those images and words left an imprint in your mind and that is how you remember those people, but is that who they really are—then or now?  Probably not, but it is hard to imagine them any other way.  Images and words are powerful.

If the goal of the yearbook staff was to make all the students feel included they should be commended because who among us does not want to be included.  The problem is they chose to separate and highlight instead of including these students in the regular activities of the high school.  Instead of creating a “special” section in the yearbook for these students, these students should have been shown with the rest of the students.  After all, they were a part of the student body too.

Mistakes are mistakes, but we should learn from mistakes.  Hopefully the school took the time to use this situation and help these students understand what the issue really was about.  The issue is about how powerful images and words can be in separating and devaluing others—knowingly or unknowingly.  People want to be known and remembered as the individuals that God created them to be.  People do not want to be remembered as “retarded”, “deaf and blind”, “crippled”, “queer”, or any other term meant to separate and devalue.  People want to be remembered as Bob, who play sports, loved movies, and supported the school’s athletic teams . . . or Betty who sang in the school choir, was in pep club, and loved going to the school dances.  Don’t we all want to be remembered for who we are . . . not some label or descriptive word?  That is what a yearbook should be about.

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