The Newspaper Clippings
by Susan Harlan
Last June, I cleared out my childhood bedroom in Sacramento. My parents were selling the house that my sisters and I grew up in, and although I had claimed most of the things I wanted over the last 22 years, there were still a number of boxes in my closet. I had never thrown the boxes away because they were filled with pictures, letters, postcards, notebooks, matchbooks, ticket stubs, coins, and all manner of souvenirs of youth, but I also had never moved them to any of my post-college homes: Seattle, London, New York City, and North Carolina.
Truth be told, this wasn’t really my childhood bedroom as my younger sister Katharine had moved into my room when I left for college, and I took her smaller room, down the hall. So it was the room that I came home to over breaks. But it still had a lot of stuff in it: all the things I had left behind. And then more stuff piled up over the years. I had saved all of my class notes from college, with course numbers written in bold caps, in indelible marker, in the upper right-hand corner of each spiral-bound notebook. I had saved junior year abroad notebooks from Paris – tucked away, with loose papers, in folders held closed with elastic bands. When I first starting teaching English literature a decade ago as a graduate student, I thought that I would go back to these notes, but I never really did.
But I found something else: a scrapbook of articles that I wrote for my high-school newspaper The Octagon. The binder that held these pages has been lost over the years – I think it was a marbled dark blue photo album with gold detail, and the pages are those now-old-fashioned adhesive photo pages with clear covers – but the newspaper clippings were there, in a messy stack in one of the boxes. I brought them back to North Carolina in my suitcase, and then I put them in a closet here. It took me a year to look at them.
There was nothing about my high school that said Normal American High School. Not John Hughes. It was a small private school in Sacramento. Very small. I graduated with twenty other students. We all knew our teachers. We all knew each other. Some of us had been in school together since kindergarten. It was a hard place in some ways, as high school tends to be, but I had good friends. And I had my English teacher Ms. Fels – or “Fels,” as we called her. She advised the newspaper, and I wrote for it from my freshman year, and I was the editor-in-chief my senior year.
This year, Fels retired. This is the first school year when she will not be teaching English literature and running the newspaper.
Fels doesn’t like to hug people, and I suspect that a lot of people hugged her – or tried to hug her – at her retirement party earlier in the summer. Back in the day, we all thought this was funny and endearing. We didn’t really understand it, but we liked it. There wasn’t anything cold about not wanting to be hugged; it felt like self-possession, the mapping out of boundaries. And now that I’m older, I also see the logic of it: if you are a woman, people want to hug you all the time. It gets to be a bit much.
If I had been able to go to Fels’s retirement party, I probably would have hugged her. Instead, I went through these scrapbook pages. I remember that I compiled this binder for college interviews. Some of the clippings are stuck to the adhesive pages. But I glued some of the articles on white paper first and then pressed them on the scrapbook pages, taping down the clear covers to secure them. The edges of the scrapbook pages are yellowed and speckled with brown mold, but the clipping themselves look exactly as they did then. On the first page, in all caps, is the following:
EDITORIAL PAGE, REPORTER
Then I have written three asterisks and, below them, this information: “The Octagon is published every three weeks.” The pages are divided into sections by plastic tabs – the kind with the little white pieces of paper that you write on and slide it in – that indicate the year: blue (“1992-1993 YEAR”), green (“1993-1994 YEAR”), and yellow (“1994-1995 YEAR”). The glue is gone on the plastic tabs, so as I flipped through the pages, the tabs kept falling off, and I kept putting them back on, knowing that they were going to fall off again.
Some of my stories made me laugh. The headline for one reads, No real work available for ready, willing Bush volunteer (October 30, 1992). Why was I volunteering for the Bush campaign? Was it just for the story? Child models sample stardom, a piece about two fourth-grade students who modeled for Macy’s and Mervyn’s, begins with this knowing assertion: “We have all heard of them. Children like Shirley Temple and Hayley Mills – children who got a taste of acting and stardom at an early age.” But others are about the kinds of things that I still love: a trip to a local costume store, for example. Costume store offers not-so-cheap thrills (October 30, 1992) includes a picture of me in “a traditional fruit-basket hat” and another in a sequined devil ensemble, which I deem “the most hideously, horribly tacky garment in existence.” (I think it’s kind of fabulous now: pearls to swine.) And still others are about school: High-school teaching lures new faculty (September 30, 1992), Neighbors concerned by parking constraints (I neglected to note the date for this one), Reformed ski bum joins science department (October 29, 1993), and School enriches music program (May 13, 1994).
I don’t remember writing Clintons’ private-school choice O.K. with parents (January 29, 1993), but I do remember my review of Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine trilogy, which utterly enchanted me with its letters that you could take out of envelopes. I also remember writing about a new novel by Lorrie Moore. I had to look the title up, but I knew it as soon as I saw it: Welcome to the Frog Hospital. 1994. And I remember writing about Natural Born Killers – and other crime-buddy road films, including Thelma and Louise (1991) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – when it came out the same year. But all of 1994-1995, my senior year, is missing from the scrapbook.
In looking over these clippings, the balance tips towards the familiar. I may not recognize the Bush-Quayle campaign volunteer, but I recognize much of this scrapbooked person as someone resembling myself, or myself in the process of becoming, as we always are.
The idea of clippings invokes a sense of pastness. Ah, yes: that time when we cut things out of things. We cut them out in order to keep them, to preserve them – maybe in a scrapbook, a book that gathers up parts of missing wholes, or perhaps in an envelope or a drawer. The word scrapbook sounds worthless – just a bunch of scraps – but of course they are not. They hold scraps of the past, taken out of context, removed from wherever they originally lived. With clippings, we access the past only in fragments, which seems right.
It is perhaps appropriate that my high-school newspaper now exists in this fragmented form because we actually put it together out of fragments. Every few weeks, one evening was devoted to “paste-up,” and the staff stayed late, with Fels, and cut headlines and pull quotes and columns of text out of shiny paper with thin, scalpel-like X-Acto knives and then affixed them to mat boards with wax. The small room we worked in smelled like warm wax and laser-printed ink; we called it “the Cave.” We took a break for dinner and ate sandwiches in Fels’s classroom next door, at the desks where we sat during the day to talk about books.
Fels always had a pen in hand in class, not necessarily to write with – just to handle and twirl around. I don’t remember if it was always the same pen or a series of pens that looked the same, but I think the clip was turned around, so it stuck out beyond where the pen ended. If she was particularly enthusiastic about something, or particularly frustrated, the pen was always there, moving about, manipulated like an actor’s prop, inextricably a part of her. We all associated it with her. It was her pen.
Fels also wrote college letters of recommendation for us. Not boilerplate letters of recommendation, but long, detailed letters that were truly about us. None of us will ever read these letters, of course, but we all had a sense of how much she put into them, how invested she was in whatever we might want to do with our lives. She was also the college counselor. I wanted to go to Yale – mostly because it seemed extremely romantic and Gothic, and a cute family friend went there – but I didn’t get in. Fels thought that I should go to Columbia. She said that I would like it, that I would like the city. And she was right.
Earlier this summer, I watched Lady Bird, and when I got to the moment when she receives the “big envelope” from the New York City school and sits down on her front lawn, stunned, I cried – embarrassingly harder than the moment warrants – because I still remember exactly what that felt like. It turned out that New York City was the place I belonged, for a while.
Until this trip home last year, I hadn’t been back to Sacramento in about a decade. Instead, when I visited my family, I went to Katharine’s apartment in San Francisco and then, years later, to her house in San Jose, where she lived with her husband Wes, and our family would congregate there. Now they have moved to Sacramento with their kids, so that is my home in California again. Maybe I’ll see Fels more often now.
The pages of the scrapbook are still lined up on my dining room table. I set them out this way so I could look over them. And they fit on the table, almost covering it. I’m glad I have them.
In going through the boxes in my closet in Sacramento, I found another scrapbook of pictures of Lauren Bacall. I remember putting this together. I was obsessed with Lauren Bacall; I wanted to be Lauren Bacall. I cut some of the pictures out of magazines, and others are postcards, and still others look like I might have torn them out of her autobiography, By Myself, which I devoured like it was a guide to life. I wrote her a fan letter, and she sent me a signed black-and-white photograph from when she was younger. I remember addressing the envelope to “Lauren Bacall / The Dakota / New York City.” The photograph is in the scrapbook, too.
Bacall was a fantasy role model, all image: powerful, but unreal, as celebrities are. I lined up the pages of that scrapbook on my dining room table, too, and I left them there for a few days and glanced at them as I walked past, but then I put them all in a drawer. They belong to the past, and I doubt that I will keep them. Bacall was a symbol, the kind that that fails to signify beyond the realm of nostalgia. But my scrapbook of newspaper clippings is still real. In high school, I thought that these clippings were about me: they were part of my performance to college interviewers. Look at what I have done. Please accept me. But they’re not about me. Not anymore. The clippings are about Fels. It’s her scrapbook, really, because she made it possible.
I think I’ll get a binder for it.
Susan Harlan’s essays have appeared in venues including The Guardian US, The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, Roads & Kingdoms, The Common, The Brooklyn Quarterly, The Morning News, Curbed, The Bitter Southerner, Public Books, and Nowhere, and her book Luggage was published in the Bloomsbury series Object Lessons in March 2018. She also writes satire for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Awl, The Billfold, Avidly, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Hairpin, The Belladonna, Janice, and The Establishment. Her humor book Decorating a Room of One’s Own: Conversations on Interior Design with Miss Havisham, Jane Eyre, Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth Bennet, Ishmael, and Other Literary Notables (Abrams, 2018) began as a column entitled “Great House Therapy” for The Toast. She teaches English literature at Wake Forest University.