Memory Recovery

This is a bit of a long story. But I think it’s a good lesson about why scholastic journalism matters, why I sweat the small stuff, and why I care so much about maintaining good archives.

This past November, I received an email from someone I don’t know with a fairly unusual question. She was wondering if there was some kind of archive of school newspapers from 2010 through 2013.

This person was looking for an article or two that she thought might have been written about her sister being excited for the holidays. I quickly skimmed the message that night and thought to myself, “That’s random, but I’ll send her a link to the newspaper’s website tomorrow.” I figured that should take care of it.

Now, it just so happens that I helped my journalism students launch their first real news website in 2010. Even though the website had been overhauled multiple times since then, including a shift from Drupal to WordPress and several server migrations, it had always been a top priority of mine to preserve all the old content.

I had also always been very strict about insisting that my students post all of their print content online as well. My feeling had always been that everything we did should be public and easily searchable.

But I even took it a step further. One of the first custom WordPress plugins I ever figured out how to code was a system for browsing the print edition of the newspaper. It allowed us to not only tag stories with their print issue but also serve up PDF copies of those issues. Posting articles wasn’t enough; I wanted people to be able to see the print edition my students worked so hard on long after those students had graduated.

This is all to say that the school very much had the archive this student was looking for. Of course, when I decided to actually test the print edition browser the next morning, I discovered that it had been broken for over a year. I had other things to do that morning, but because I can’t walk away from a good programming problem, I logged into the server, tracked down the bug, and fixed it. (This particular mistake appeared to have been introduced deliberately, but I never did figure out why.)

After this, I went back and reread the email. The student was hoping to find these hypothetical articles as part of a holiday gift she was working on for her parents and family.

Something was weird about this.

A lightbulb started to flicker on in my head. I now had a thought that I truly hoped was wrong. So I went ahead and Googled the student’s name. As I’d begun to suspect, she had passed away a few years after graduating.

I had lost my own sister only a year prior. She was 21 at the time, around the same age as this former student. What was originally going to be a quick email of a hyperlink now felt a lot more personal.

So I decided to search the newspaper website myself. I came across only two mentions of the girl’s name, none of which—alas!—involved any holiday excitement.

The sister’s recollection of a holiday story had seemed like a longshot, but I was too invested now and the prospect of disappointing her was too heartbreaking. So I started checking all the yearbooks from 2010 to 2013. (Thank goodness we include a thorough index in each edition!) And sure enough, in the 2013 book, there was a small photo of the student helping a classmate with a math problem while decked out in Christmas spirit. She was wearing a green dress wrapped in Christmas lights and topped off with one of those stick-on gift box bows.

Now I understood.

I scanned the photo, did the best I could to “de-screen” it in Photoshop, and started writing an email back to the girl’s sister. I attached the photo and included links to the two stories I found (plus the PDF archive just in case). I also let her know that I knew that what she and her family were dealing with was rough and that I had experienced it, too.

But before I hit send, I thought, “Why don’t I check one more thing?” I pulled up the sales report from 2013 and saw that the family had not purchased a yearbook that year. So I offered to send a copy of the book, too. The student appeared in several other photos that year, and I already knew that I had four or five extra copies in the secret stash I keep around for this sort of thing.

(Side note: Fulfilling random requests for ancient yearbooks is actually one of my favorite things that I get to do on very rare occasions. Among other incidents over the years, I was once able to procure a genuine replacement for a book from the 80s that was lost in a house flood. The former student’s spouse was planning to gift it as a surprise.)

The student’s sister was very appreciative and graciously accepted my offer to send a copy of the book.

I share this story because what struck me after all of this is that I don’t always know why I care so much about certain things. I didn’t need to create a digital print edition archive. I don’t need to have a library of every school yearbook available right behind my desk. No one is going to fire me if a name or two is missing from the index.

A few years ago, I started preserving digital copies of every photo that was printed in the yearbook, organized in folders by the page they originally appeared on. I definitely don’t need to do that, either.

But what I find out, time and time again, is that this stuff matters. How it will matter can never be predicted. But being able to recover and produce memories when someone needs them most is invaluable.

Yearbooks can seem so quaint, and school newspapers can seem so “amateur.” It can be a real challenge convincing students to take a class with a big workload and no special GPA perks.

But the truth is, my students and I work together to perform a public service. We’re part of the community in ways they rarely realize. Teaching is a tough profession, and I have frequent ups and downs, but it does help to be reminded once in a while of this particular privilege I have as a journalism teacher.