My personal statement is due on the First, and I don't even know how to write one. I've never done this, talked about myself, tried to get into a graduate program and get an assistanceship. I've never even had a job, really, except that one summer I walked beans, but we aren't talking about that right now. Or ever.
I decided to chat online with the most helpful person I knew: the disembodied ask-a-librarian, who I live-chatted with while holed-up at a single table at the end of the stacks in the UI Main Library. Ask-a-librarian is like a confessional for all that you don't know, but perhaps should.
I don't know where to begin, I confessed. You want to talk about your strengths, she answered, what skills you bring, what sets you apart, what you've learned over time, challenges you've overcome, your values and your motivations, and how those formed you.
Skills? Challenges? Motivations? This sounds painful. No, she said, it's about you, and you already know all the answers. What skills do you have? she asked, and I could think of exactly zero transferable skills. I've detasseled corn, and of course there is my mean ability with a bean hook. But no. I've nannied and babysat, and tutored algebra ... I trailed off. I have a scholarship I earned for being yearbook editor in high school, I began again. Say more about that, she encouraged.
Say more about being a yearbook editor? Where to begin! Yearbook editors, in case you did not know, are the keepers of the future. We might not be the high-achieving academician, or the elite athlete, but we see it all. We are nearly invisible sometimes—the watchers, the observers. We pull it all together: social groups, pep rallies, dance-a-thons, geography bees, Homecoming court, FFA, Key Club, 4H, Drum Corps, the first show choir west of the Mississippi, all of it. We photograph and sort, snap candids in the hall and the cafeteria and the breezeway and among the pickup-truck tailgates around the bonfires. We edit out the beer cans and the middle fingers, the cleavage that is too much, and the mean-girl snarls.
We know the secrets, overheard in the bathrooms and locker rooms, backstage and in the back of the bus. We know who swallowed the assistant principal's entire aquarium of goldfish on a dare, and how to get that story in the yearbook without revealing the culprit. For the record, you photoshop a bag of goldfish crackers into his hand in a candid shot, and everyone who knows that legendary story finds it hilarious, a nod to the nine goldfish that gave their lives in the John F. Kennedy High School main office when the secretary was distracted by a kitten loose in the hall. Oh, you also photoshop a Hello Kitty decal onto the sidekick's t-shirt in that same candid photo. The goldfish and kitten, forever linked in yearbook lore. Thank a yearbook editor, for knowing what will stand the test of time.
Almost like having a crystal ball, we live the long and painful days of high school as they happen, but then revamp and revise what we capture to ensure that decades from now, what comes flooding back when you look at these pages is mostly positive, sometimes silly, softly sentimental, a catch in the throat, a sigh, a smile. We know for some, these were the best years and for others they were what Dante described in The Inferno. We sand down the rough edges, so we can see what formed us, when we look back. We work in a house of mirrors, reflecting this very moment forward on a catapult through time, hoping we get it right, that we catch some stars and shake off some fears along the way, so everyone feels part of that place and that space whenever they open their book. We hope we are more than just nerds with words, that we level some of the pedestals for a more inclusive nostalgia, on some distant day ahead.
Wait, said the ask-the-librarian, are you writing this down? I stopped. Writing what down—this yearbook stuff? Yes, she said, yes yes yes. This is your personal statement, all of it. We both paused. Are you still there? she asked. I am, I answered. Can I ask you something... she began. I waited—the ask-a-librarian, asking ME. She was incredulous: did someone really eat nine goldfish?
Yes, yes he did. And we have the yearbook picture to prove it. Well, it's a photo with goldfish crackers, but it's archived right there for anyone to see. That's a nod and a wink from yours truly, your very own staff yearbook editor.