Pity the high school yearbook editors of the pandemic. The 2020–21 school year will be remembered by just about no one as “2 good 2 be 4gotten,” but in most schools around the country, the yearbook faithful still went to the trouble of putting together an annual record of student life, even in an academic year during which many students hardly set foot in their school buildings for months at a time. Among them was Kelly Rappaport, 18, a member of the class of 2021 at Joliet West High School in Joliet, Illinois, and a co-editor-in-chief of its yearbook, the Alpha Omega. Rappaport agreed to answer Slate’s questions about how she and her fellow editors went about making a yearbook fit for a plague year. The book is on a delayed schedule this year, so when we spoke a few weeks ago, they were still hard at work on getting it done. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Heather Schwedel: What has been your school situation this year? How much was in person?
Kelly Rappaport: The first semester was entirely online. Starting in March, we had kids who did hybrid and went in one day a week in separate groups. Later in the spring, they changed it so all of the hybrid kids go in four days a week.
When you realized school wouldn’t be in person for at least the beginning of the year, were you worried about what that would mean for the yearbook? Were you guys panicking?
We technically weren’t even approved for a yearbook until mid-to-late September, but my teacher told us to work on it anyway, because those are those crucial times where we have to develop a theme and things like that. We had to get a cover designed. We had to determine a lot of little design elements and how we were going to go about capturing this crazy year, not even knowing if it would be able to be made. So it was definitely stressful, but at the same time, we kind of knew it needed to be made—just because we weren’t in school physically didn’t mean the world came to a grinding halt.
Things were still happening. Students were still doing things. And at the end of the day, the yearbook is about capturing the students, not the building. So we were pretty determined. We wrote several proposals to make sure that it went through. On the Facebook page for my high school, some of the parents were like, “Why are we going to pay $45 or $50 for a yearbook for a school year that’s not happening?” Absolutely a valid concern, because they are pricey, and they were assuming nothing was going to be in there. We addressed that. We like to give little teasers by showing spreads online so people see kind of what the book’s going to look like. They know that we put effort into it. They know that it’s going to look good. Even if it’s not a typical yearbook or a typical year, there is content inside.
Did you know right away that there were certain things that you do every year that you wouldn’t be able to do this year?
Our main concern was sports, because the sports are kind of a big draw, not only because there’s a lot of really great action shots that you can get, but also because that’s where the majority of the spreads come from. It’s where a lot of kids like to point and say, “Look, that’s me.” So we were concerned that if sports weren’t running, which at the time it didn’t look like a lot of them would, we wouldn’t have as interesting of a book and we wouldn’t have as many students involved with it.
How did you end up dealing with all those obstacles?
We’re very design-heavy this year because we can’t take as many photos and people aren’t in school, and sports ran weird. We have a professional photography company, but we, as students, aren’t allowed to go and take photos because of COVID restrictions. So we’ve been extremely limited in terms of what photos we can use.
We had to take a broader interpretation of what a yearbook is. So not everything is within the school. Instead of focusing on what happened inside the school, we focused on, what are the students from our school doing? We focused on pop culture. What are people interested in right now? Basically, what are kids up to since we aren’t at school?
What did you end up covering that you might not normally?
We had a spread about mental health and how students were reacting to COVID and quarantine and what things students were doing to help them cope with such a weird and difficult time. We did a spread about TikTok. I don’t know if you remember seeing the news when they were trying to get it banned. We did a poll. We talked about celebrities and politics, kind of blending news with yearbook. We did some fun little stuff, like what the type of mask you wear says about you. We also did quarantine essentials, like what do students think is totally necessary?
We covered the Black Lives Matter protests and our students’ involvement, ’cause we actually had a few students from our high school organize a protest with our city. We covered how everyone had to adjust to Zoom from both the teacher perspective and the student perspective. We even covered politics. We covered the presidential election itself and students voting in that election, because some of our seniors were able to vote. It wasn’t always directly related to school, but we tried to capture the school year itself, whether that involves school or not.
What about the basic yearbook building block of individual photos of all the students? They probably couldn’t do a normal Picture Day.
Yes, we did have our portraits. At least for our senior ones, they were taken a tent in the parking lot. I think actually all of the grades were. They had allotted times that you would come and get your photograph taken. We’re even allowing for self-submitted photos, if students were unable to attend at those times to take their photos and for the students whose risk was too great for them to go.
What happened with sports in the end?
Fall sports, about half of them were pushed to spring. So that would be your high-contact stuff like football, which is so weird—we’re having a football season in April. Wrestling was pushed back. Boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball, and girls’ volleyball were all pushed back. Those are happening now, which is really weird, but that’s why it’s nice that we structure our book chronologically. So even though they didn’t get in in the fall spot, since they’re happening now, they can have a spot in spring.
Were you able to have yearbook club meetings using video calls? How was that?
We do meet over Zoom, I would say maybe once or twice a month. It’s definitely different. At school normally, we have a publications office attached to my journalism classroom. We have all of the desktop computers with the Adobe software that we need. We had proper cameras, not like iPhone cameras, but like, you know, a Canon. You could work individually, but it was also more collaborative because you could look over to the kids sitting next to you and say, “Hey, how do you think this looks?” or “Do you know who this is?” Just get a little bit of input as you’re going. It’s not as easy to do that anymore.
Pretty much the entire yearbook club is new and underclassmen. Teaching the club online … wow. I had to make a Google slide presentation on how to write a proper yearbook story and break it down.
For kids who have never touched that sort of thing and have never been in the intro to journalism class, it’s kind of new. For journalistic writing, it’s pretty short, sweet, to the point, the inverted triangle kind of format. Teaching them, that was interesting. And graphic design is going to be a work in progress.
Did you and your co-editors have any rules about approaching coronavirus and not letting it take over the whole book?
Especially when we were determining what our theme would be for the year, we did not want to go with something relating to COVID just because we knew everyone was sick of it. I don’t know about you, but if I could go the rest of my life without having to hear the words “quarantine” or “social distancing,” I would be so happy to never have to hear them again.
The theme we chose was More Than Meets the Eye. We didn’t want to implement masks into our theme because we thought people would be sick of hearing about it. So we thought of More Than Meets the Eye, because when people are wearing masks, all you see are their eyes. Sometimes if you work with somebody and you’ve only ever seen him with a mask, and then he takes it off, you’re like, “Whoa, you look like that?” So we thought, there’s more to our school than meets the eye. Our statistics, if you Google our high school, sometimes they’re not so great, but we really have a fantastic community with a lot of school spirit and kids that work hard.
And I would say avoiding Zoom screenshots was huge. Not only are they not good photos—they’re just not—but on top of that, people would be sick of looking at it anyway. So we did a lot of the teacher perspective and the student perspective. So maybe like what the students’ workspaces look like. How different teachers were coping with teaching their subjects, like PE teachers had to teach from home, like a workout class. Science teachers had to perform their own labs and film them for their students. We covered a lot of that adjustment without covering Zoom itself.
Were there any particular pages you really loved working on in previous years that you were disappointed you couldn’t do this year?
I think I really missed, which sounds kind of dumb, but I really missed out on doing the spreads for the dances and for the marching band and color guard, ’cause the photos always turn out just so beautiful. Last year’s yearbook, the spread we had for color guard, they were performing right at sunset. The sky was pink and their flags were red and yellow, like a fire. And the dances, I always love the candids of people just enjoying themselves with their friends and the people they like.
How did you decide to cover hard or depressing topics, like a pandemic and loss and the economy, and how much of that you wanted to include in the yearbook?
The way I covered mental health—and this is going to sound kind of funny, but let me explain myself—was the way I approach our sports stories. Because when the sports teams have a terrible season, just truly awful, like maybe they won two games the whole season, I can’t write that in the yearbook story and say they won two games out of 25 and blah, blah, blah, bad season. I’ll say maybe that although they didn’t have a great season, the players showed a lot of improvement, or I focus on the team bond and the hard work and that type of thing. So I kind of did the same when I approached mental health, where I acknowledged that it wasn’t an ideal situation and I acknowledged that a lot of people struggled, but I definitely tried to end it on a high note and not just talk about how bad it was, but how people were coping.
Did as many students as usual buy yearbooks this year?
Our sales are definitely down. Usually our numbers are going up, we’re in the five or six hundreds by now, but we are barely breaking 400. But you can also consider the economic factors. Some people being out of work and that type of thing.
Do you know if you’re going to be able to have a time for students to get together to sign each other’s books?
We never had an official signing day. We were going to plan an official yearbook signing day last year, and maybe fundraise by selling Sharpies or stickers or something like that. But obviously that fell through because the world ended. I don’t think we’re going to have a proper signing day, especially because the delivery is so late this year. It’s just the way it is.
I know it’s not completely finished yet, but how do you feel about how the yearbook turned out?
We made the best of what we had, and I’m pretty proud of what we were able to accomplish, everything considered. I think it looks great, but it also, you know, doesn’t look like a yearbook. It’s a magazine. But hey, at least it’s pretty.