As you’ll recall from part one of this series, Adam Bonislawski is on a quest to track down the missing Gammators, radioactive teaching devices created in the 1950s and placed in our nation’s high schools. The funny thing is, not all of them have been recalled. This week, Bonislawski goes in search of radioactive waste… in the pages of the Mother Cabrini High School yearbook.
One week and $39.95 later, I am the proud owner of a vintage 1965 Mother Cabrini High School yearbook. I bought it with the vague idea that somewhere in its pages I might find a photo of the elusive Gammator. I did not. The yearbook does feature a relatively lengthy seven-page Science section, though, including a picture of several students crowded around a Geiger Counter — so, you know, we’re in the ballpark here.
Beyond that, there’s something generally delightful about the book, Gammator photo or no. Part of it is simple historical interest — getting a glimpse of life at a New York City Catholic school as it was lived some 43 years ago. Part of it is the section headings, which read like priceless mash-ups of a glowering Mother Superior and an awkwardly dubbed Japanese video game (“Our Senior Dance… We Fulfill Our Capacity for Enjoyment”). Most of all there’s the air of mystery that attaches to such objects. The names and the pictures and the notes combine to sketch the outline of a world that is, in a general sense, perfectly familiar but in specific terms largely unknowable. Looking at the pictures you recognize in them – or, more accurately, project onto them – types and characters and dramas from your own school days. Reading the handwritten notes, you can’t help but concoct in your mind webs of friendships, alliances, rivalries, feuds. There’s no explicit storyline, but there are a million implied. It’s like stumbling upon found fiction of a sort – there’s raw material here for any number of narratives you’d care to imagine.
Of the many great bits in Lolita, one of the best is the passage in which Nabokov lists the names of Dolores’ classmates.
Simply by calling role he conjures a menagerie of middle-school types, suggesting with nothing but names a host of characters bustling unseen just offstage. The Mother Cabrini yearbook staffers aren’t quite Nabokov’s match as prose stylists, but there’s a similar ghostly charm to their work.
Also, this – from the acknowledgments section on the back page: “Mr. Sol Stempler, of Paramount Photographers, who always provides us with superlative portrait work, and outstandingly beautiful photographic material, even at great personal sacrifice.” (Emphasis mine) What sort of great personal sacrifices did taking school portraits in the mid-‘60s entail, exactly?
Tune in next week when we join the Mother Cabrini alumni Facebook page and try to get our phone calls returned by the Department of Energy.
A project I’m surprised nobody has ever attempted (to my knowledge, and I assume that this is something that I’d know about) is a completely fabricated high school yearbook. Like Stanislaw Lem’s reviews of nonexistent books, but with the gutpunching nostalgia for lost time you thought you could only get from looking through the old yearbooks in your high school library or parents’ bookshelves.
Maybe the reason this has never been attempted is that to do it right it would involve auditioning several hundred teenage models, and David Hamilton is a very busy man.
Speaking of Lolita.