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The Lives They Led

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In the back room of the yearbook room, there are two closets. One stores cameras, the second, smaller room stores a vast archive of yearbooks. You want a yearbook from last year? We’ve got you covered. You want to see a book dating back a hundred years? We’ve got that too. But above all, the rooms are covered in the odds and ends of life, from paper towel rolls to paintings. Recently, the staff of the yearbook has decided to, well, tidy things up. We were in the process of that this April when we discovered something unusual.

It was a brown box, atop one of the tallest shelves in the room. It had been shoved up there and forgotten about. And it was heavy; I could tell. Our editor nearly dropped it as she tried to get it down. But once we got it down and into the main yearbook room, we crowded around it to see what we had found. It was full to the brim…of polaroid photographs. Mixed in with it were some old CD cases and film envelopes. The three of us who had found it started digging through it innocuously. I had expected, for its weight, that there were only a few photos and a lot of other stuff beneath. As it turns out, I was wrong. Save a giant metal scanner for photos, it was full of snapshots of a generation long since passed from our small high school world to the vast one beyond. The youngest photos were from 2005.

Our fellow staffers soon gravitated towards it all. Soon, most of the class was pulling out snapshots. Almost from the start, we had begun to sort them into piles: the ones we liked, and the ones we didn’t. With all the space we had freed up in our room, we needed some atmosphere, and hey, some of those photos were really good. Why not put them out? But most of them went into the far bigger pile that had begun to form: those that we would return to the back room. Into that category fell the blurry, the strange (“Why’d they photograph a gas sign?”), but by far the mundane. Those of students doing work. Or in front of a computer. Those of students at games, on the patio for lunch, talking, laughing, hanging out. Even prom pictures and pictures from their jobs. We saw teachers (“Is that Mr. McCann?”), familiar sites, both here (Quigley, our yearbook room) and afar (Times Square).

Suddenly the thought occurred to me; that the pictures we were sorting weren’t just a bunch of snapshots; they were a story. In the days before smartphones, before our social media, these were the things people would share with each other. We were seeing the world as they had seen it then. If we were to have emptied our smartphones’ photo roll into a giant bowl, it would not have looked much different.

One photo in particular caught my eye. It’s unremarkable. In it, two people, a guy and a girl, are staring at the camera. The guy has his arm around the girl. They’re wearing black and gold, and the girl’s shirt has “Senior” emblazoned on it in gold, drawn in a homemade fashion. It was that unremarkable quality that made it so remarkable to me. It could have been anybody, anywhere, at any time in the past decade or so. I had never seen them before. Nor do I feel I’ll ever see them again. But for that one brief moment, captured in the picture, their ageless faces stare back at the viewer, sharing their moment with each other. That I didn’t know them didn’t matter. Why would it? They’d never know me, and vice versa. Yet here we were, looking at each other, and the bonds of time are loosened just a bit.

I’ll go on, follow them into the world that awaits us at the end of our senior year, when we’re so caught up in our celebration of leaving it behind that we forget we’re also leaving a bit of ourselves behind as well. Four years of joy and heartbreak, of stories and tales that echoed in the halls while we’re there. Save but for a few of them, most will remain hidden in the walls around us for the rest of the time this school will exist, each year layering upon the next, our own odyssey our focus, center stage. They will remain there, unknown to the next generation, our voices, our stories, intertwined with each other and with those who came before us and those that will follow. They are the struggles and trials of life, our life. For better or worse, we left our mark on this school, as it has on us. We come in children, unable to fend for ourselves in the world around us. We leave as adults, future ahead of us.

No, we can’t hear the stories in the walls. But we don’t have to look far to find the remnants of those that came before us. Sometimes we lose ourselves in our own life to the extent that we forget our trials that we face aren’t necessarily unique. Their clothes may be different, their lives separate from ours, but they found their path, as we will. Someday soon, I’ll be the weirdly dressed kid from twenty years ago that some student finds on some forgotten digital archive, or something like that, grinning at some long passed moment that is preserved until it decays to the point that there’s nothing left to preserve.

Their lives were their own. As are ours. But the barrier we establish between the past and the present and the future doesn’t extend enough to convince me that, in the end, the people in the yearbooks from a half a century ago weren’t all too different from me, that they were not as human as I will ever be.

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