Sarah Darzacq, 16, looks through the 2020-21 Berkeley High yearbook, stopping at her favorite spread showcasing student art. Credit: Ally Markovich

After school, four teenagers sat behind a table littered with stacks of green yearbooks. “The Berkeley High Handbook” is etched onto each cover with silver lettering, a reference to the chosen theme — documenting how students got through the 2020-21 school year.

“Did we really get through it? I don’t know,” Sarah Darzacq, who is now the yearbook’s sports editor, says, only half-joking.

Members of the Berkeley High yearbook staff pose with Genevieve Mage, the club’s adviser. Keizo Ono, Nehemiah Stevenson, Noemi Buenrostro-Perez, Kaya Dixon, Evelyn Ruiz, Nayezca Guzzman-Jubb, and Genevieve Mage. Credit: Berkeley High yearbook

When the editorial staff started selling yearbooks last week, students were surprised that there was any yearbook to speak of. The days had dragged on endlessly, but the school year passed in a blur of Zoom screens and text messages with friends. Had any of it really happened?

“People didn’t realize that we were actually putting together a yearbook. They’d be like, ‘Sarah, what year?'” said Darzacq.

The book is thinner by about 60 pages, missing many of the usual traditions that were reduced to virtual events or lost altogether. The pandemic left the team of photographers and editors scrambling to commemorate a year that was at once pivotal and endlessly monotonous.

The challenge seemed insurmountable, “[b]ut after endless amounts of email back and forths, Instagram posts, and dms, we gained enough content to fill the minimum number of pages we needed to publish this yearbook,” last year’s editors wrote in a letter published in the yearbook.

There are pages devoted to the Black Lives Matter protests and the election of Joe Biden. On one page, a student describes what it was like to lose her mother to COVID-19. On another, smiling photos of students dressed in black tie attire commemorate an informal “prom” organized by students. There are pages devoted to mental health and others to recipes students developed during quarantine. The result is a memorial to a pandemic year marked both by life at home and life-changing events.

‘It’s hard to show something that’s not there’

Yearbook, which is taught as a class at Berkeley High, begins each fall with a team of 20 or so student staff members. But last year, their task seemed impossible. None of their usual avenues were available to photograph: no sports to shoot, no silly outfits during spirit week, no chance to surprise classmates by bursting into classrooms.

“We’re struggling to find any way to respectably document this year,” Genevieve Mage, the yearbook teacher who advises the staff, told Berkeleyside in March. 

Sarah Darzacq pages through the pandemic yearbook. Credit: Ally Markovich

The staff didn’t want a yearbook full of Zoom screenshots, but they didn’t want to present the illusion that the year was a normal one, either.

“Nothing was happening. How do you show that in a yearbook?” Darzacq said. “We’ve tried to find the snippets of things that did happen, but that kind of makes it seem like it was just a regular year. It’s hard to show something that’s not there.”

On page six of the yearbook is a giant Zoom screen, but the grainy images of students heads attending class from their bedrooms are swapped out with smiling photos: a student getting vaccinated, another volunteering at the Berkeley Food Pantry, a group of friends wearing masks and dancing.

A bird’s eye view of the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble. Credit: Berkeley High yearbook

In April, high school students began returning to campus for hybrid learning, the school was finally abuzz with student voices in the hallways. The staff photographers were hopeful this meant they could finally document student life. There’s a shot of Mage and Tiffany Sutherland, an assistant in the counseling program, play-fighting with the 6-foot long sticks the school gave them to measure seating in their classrooms. Another image shows a birds-eye view of the 2021 Jazz Ensemble, students playing brass instruments standing 6 feet apart.

But less than half of Berkeley High students returned to campus for the few hours a week that was offered, and many activities were still on pause. It became clear that the students wouldn’t be able to take many live-action pictures — even the sports teams had closed practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Darzacq said.

Photos from an informal prom organized by students. Credit: Berkeley High yearbook

So they took to collecting. Instead of attending a dance showcase, they took Zoom screenshots of a virtual one. They sent messages to their friends on Instagram, painstakingly gathering permission to share photographs. Sometimes they heard back, and sometimes they didn’t. In the end, they had so many missing senior portraits that they added a student roster, so there would be some record of each graduating senior. In the last few months of the school year, they amassed enough content to produce a yearbook that they felt represented students’ experiences.

In a new section on mental health, the yearbook pays tribute to students’ struggles. “It’s just difficult when everything is the same, like you’re just sitting at the computer all day, and then turning in assignments, and it’s just the same process over and over again,” reflects one senior. But, everything has an upside: “Close friendships that students did have in March of 2020, seemed to have gotten stronger,” one editor wrote.

The yearbook has a few other new additions, too. Because the yearbook was published this fall, the students squeezed in shots from senior dare night (a message from the winning team: “We would like to thank our mothers, our spreadsheet, razors and ranch”) and “prom.” In place of spirit week, Darzacq curated a collection of digital art produced by students last year, pairing photography with poems, a section that contains her favorite pages from the yearbook.

Then there was the challenge of documenting politics. Berkeley High students are famous for their activist streak, but as the world around them swirled, the lives of teenagers ground to a halt.

“It felt like so much was happening in the world and yet, not a lot was happening at school,” Darzacq explained.

The yearbook declares the election of Joe Biden (and the defeat of Donald Trump) the “most important election of our lifetimes.” Two pages on climate change acknowledge the increasing urgency of the issue and the difficulty of going out and protesting during a pandemic. In short interviews, Black teachers and students reflect on what the Black Lives Matter movement of the summer of 2020 meant to them and give advice to students wanting to do more.

In the end, the staff hopes the yearbook will be a time capsule for a historic year.

“What we have lived through is something that will be talked about for decades to come and is something that will live with us for the longest time,” the editors write in their letter on one of the yearbook’s last pages.

The yearbook ends triumphantly: “Dear Reader, Congratulations. You have made it through a year of the unthinkable.”

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...