Guest contributor: Kristen Keckler

Bad Advice Wednesday: Reelin’ in the Years

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Answer: the one in the middle.


Until yesterday, my yearbooks lived in a little-used closet at my parents’ house. Somehow they’d never made it (along with one gorgeous post-college wok) to Texas, where I lived for eleven years. Even after I moved back to New York last winter, a few towns up the Hudson from my folks, I still hadn’t managed to retrieve the yearbooks—the wok being first thing I re-claimed. Along with an electric guitar I don’t really know how to play. And the gnarly snowboard (mid 90s Gnu, electric orange and blue) covered with over a decade’s worth of dust.

Class of ’90

A few weeks back, Bill wrote about becoming an expert: full immersion in your topic. As a memoirist, one thing I often struggle with, ironically, is, as Bill advised, “going micro” with my own life. I mean, I lived it, sure, but still, I’m always like, what the heck was I thinking back then? Who was that girl? What made her tic? Is it the same stuff that makes me tic today? (Hardly!)

So I crack open the 1990 Aloysian (note to self: why was the yearbook called “Aloysian”) and can almost detect the scent of unicorns leaping through floral moss—Coty’s Wild Musk. I start with sophomore year, a year that feels so foreign and ho-hum I can hardly pinpoint a single significant pimple or heartbreak. First thing I notice is that the senior class has used enough hairspray to win a Tony Award. To cause a major chink in the ozone. Bangs are teased into elaborate crowns of curl rivaling Italian Renaissance sculptures, so stiff they might have invited roosting birds. Gold must’ve been at an all-time low because there’s kilos of it, especially in the form of pendants, one’s name in diamond-chipped cursive (just in case we forgot what to call you.) There are big pleather belts. Swatch watches. Cocker spaniel perms. Chinos (called petal pushers then?) rolled exactly two times at the cuffs. And beneath the underclassmen uniform skirts, I spy legs iridescent with nude pantyhose. Penny loafers, too, with real pennies tucked in the slits. I hear songs as quoted from the likes of Billy Joel, Skid Row, Bon Jovi, Depeche Mode, White Lion, Whitney Houston, Pink Floyd, Richard Marx, and Milli Vanilli. As I turn the pages, I heed Sr. Laura’s—our gym teacher-esque Dean of Students—unmistakable whine: “Now Girls! Girls! Settle down!” There’s clip art of cassette tapes among posed candid photos—two girls huddled beside a payphone (the one in the cafeteria), mugging for the camera—they had boyfriends to call, or page, or whatever. I recall the birthday corsage—basically, big Hallmark bows with candy and gum taped to long streamers of ribbon—as I count six of them safety-pinned to the chest of our blonde, bubbly class president.

I’m always drawn to the notes classmates signed in my yearbook, especially the impromptu high-fives from chicks I wasn’t particularly close to, whom I barely knew. They often translate: “We should have, like, been friends, but whatever, have a great life anyways!” Then there are the letters from the inner circle—in my times, it was considered standard to write long meandering missives alluding to all the juicy teen drama, the shared humiliations and triumphs interspersed with quotes from songs and digs at certain teachers. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, and it was common for a close friend to take the yearbook home over the weekend to perfect the signing. I recall even writing rough drafts of my memories before putting them to permanent pink or purple sparkly ink.

Can you find Krissy?

I’m looking for characters now, and they leap, curtsy, Electric Slide, and Vogue off the page, especially in the form of my besties. But sometimes you’ll encounter someone who maybe wasn’t your best friend, someone you had some sort of interesting history or interaction with once-upon-a-time, someone who you’ve all but forgotten about. Until now.

Holly McGiness. Holly was my proctress. A self-proclaimed metal head (DAEH LATEM). She had big dark eyes, an angular jaw, shaggy black hair with modest poof and wings on the side. She was a tough girl, reminded me of Jo on Facts of Life, but slightly more feminine. She had a black-fringed leather purse, big enough to stow a can of Aqua Net, a couple rabbits’ feet, maybe even knives. She wore a black leather motorcycle jacket and black slouchy leather ankle boots with straps and studs and buckles and a stacked heel that could kick teeth out. She loved the shit out of those boots. She had a boyfriend—Mike—who picked her up after school in his red Camaro. He might have been nineteen or twenty. She wore his bulky class ring on a chain around her neck, along with a cross. Sometimes, after school, she’d change out of her uniform and emerge out of the locker room door in full head-banger splendor: painted-on black jeans, Metallica tee, leather jacket, boots.

She was a junior when I was a sophomore and we officially met in Driver’s Ed. Our instructor, a twenty-something Puerto Rican dude named RC, pulled up blasting the likes of Seduction’s “You’re My One and Only True Love,” bass pumping through the deserted school lot. He’d obviously handpicked his car—our car. It was a black Buick Skylark with tinted windows and some major sub woofers. I’m not even sure it had a bumper sticker that said “Student Driver.” Of course, our rinky-dink Catholic school probably contracted out Driver’s Ed to the cheapest possible driving school.

Upper row, first perm on the left.

The first day, driving through White Plains, I clipped—okay, maybe more like slashed—a curb. RC cussed in Spanish, made me do a u-ey so we could retrieve the hubcap. I was clearly shaken but when we changed drivers, Holly took me by the shoulders: “Shit happens, you’re doing fine. Don’t let him psych you out.”

So I didn’t. I practiced over the weekend with my mother, and I quickly started to get the hang of cruising to the supermarket. RC even complimented me on my driving by the third week. “I thought you were gonna be the worst one,” he said.

He took us to neighborhoods that I, a sheltered suburban girl, had only seen on the news, or as a kid with my Italian grandma, shopping for prosciutto and cheese. One day, RC navigated me through pretzels of highways and ramps until I suddenly saw a sign: Welcome to the Bronx.

“But we’re not allowed to drive in the city!” I’d protested, meekly. I knew the rules—no learner’s permits allowed in any of the five boroughs!

“With me you are, mami—I can take you anywhere I want,” he said, almost as a dare.

My first experience with parallel parking other than in the school parking lot was on a busy street in the Bronx with the elevated subway rumbling overhead and cars double-parked as far as the eye could see. I was slowly circling the block when RC, out of nowhere, scoped out a spot and told me to park. Here? Yes, c’mon, vámonos. So I fit the Buick into a spot the size of a loveseat, all the while sweating from my eyeballs.

“I need to run an errand,” he told us. “You coming?”

So we followed him into a graffiti-stained bodega, its windows covered with bars, and loaded up on sodas and snacks. He spoke to the man behind the counter in Spanish and the man smiled and followed us outside, patting RC on the back.

Back in the car, he told us, “That was my pops.” Something clicked and I felt myself softening. After all, he’d taken us to see his dad.

It was an unconventional Drivers Ed, but we all knew to not complain. We put up with him scamming on girls out the car window and randomly turning up the stereo till the car rocked with bass; with his secretive destinations and agendas, with dips into Washington Heights during rush hour traffic. After all, no one else was getting to drive in the City.

We all passed our road tests on the first try. Decades later, I still surprise my passengers with slick Dukes of Hazzard stylie parking moves.

Drivers Ed was a like being on sport—it cemented friendships. Holly and I never hung outside of school, but we’d shoot the shit in the locker room or in the cafeteria. I was a non-athlete, a nerd, an awkward, knobby-kneed, flat-chested, pizza-faced, fashion-challenged goody two-shoes. Now I’m remembering: I liked to ski, and though I’d only been on one ski weekend, by the end I was swishing down blue squares. I liked to dance in my bedroom to the likes of Young MC and Salt-n-Pepa. I loved the show Dallas, and going to the mall—the White Plains Galleria—and making apple pies, and roller coaster rides, and talking about—but not to—boys. I liked coming up with headlines for articles in the school newspaper, liked writing the articles, too, though I pretended to be tortured by it. I loathed blood, spiders, standardized tests. I feared not finding a willing, handsome prince to take to the prom junior year. I liked driving. I liked the beach. I liked reading Ann Landers with my morning cereal. I tolerated geometry and church. I hated the rain, my hair, and mean people. I liked California, where my Godmother lived. I liked cats.

I didn’t go out of my way to make enemies, they just appeared—I was an easy target, a sitting gosling. But when I was with Holly, I was practically untouchable. A group of popular preps would walk by and stop talking, stare at us, an odd couple. She’d stare back with spiked eyeballs and say, loudly, “What’s up!” When they slunk away, she’d mutter, “Yeah, thought so, bitches.”

Holly was fiery on the outside, sweet on the inside, like one of those flambéed desserts. She’d extoll the merits of heavy metal and tell me about all the concerts she’d been to, complete with pyrotechnics, and though I associated Ozzy Osbourn with the consumption of a live rat—or maybe it was a bat—on stage, and some of the other bands with satanic cults, I heard her out. I conceded her Iron Maiden and she tolerated my Guns and Roses. I helped her with her math homework and she thought it was cool that I was smart. I liked her because she was funny and because she thought I was too, and not because she felt sorry for me. And now when I read her entry in my yearbook: “Do not remember me by this picture, instead, remember me by my BOOTS,” her hand-drawn arrows leading me below the hem of her gray wool uniform skirt, to the barely visible bottom of the frame: the boots. And that’s exactly what I do.

Now it’s your turn. You’re probably adequately adjusted by now, so get into that fourteen or sixteen or eighteen year old’s brain. Crack open that yearbook and treat it as a cultural artifact (because, let’s be honest, at this point it probably is). Flip through, finding the crush-who-didn’t-know-you-existed, or your D & D arch nemesis, your bus buddy, lab partner, or maybe the dude/girl with hair that defied logic and gravity. Feel that dab of Clearasil on your fingertip. Wallow in self-pity. Cheer that team to victory. Taste that cafeteria pizza. This was your life. Own it. Write it.


  1. Debora writes:

    Kristen, this is great writing. Very funny and intimate and all the neat things of memoir. Love your treatment of all the mundane nuances–no longer mundane, that’s for sure.

  2. Love this, Kristen! And, by odd coincidence, I’ve been looking at my old yearbooks lately, too. Mostly for other people — one is now a local politician, another is a semi-famous ESPN reporter with a Wikipedia page all her own — but still, nostalgia (in that sickly-sweet way) is getting the better of me. And now I might have something to do with that.

    I think this just became my Writer’s Notebook entry on my blog this week. Thanks for the idea!