I couldn’t find hide nor hair about personality books on the Internet, so I was almost sure I had dreamed them. It wouldn’t have been the first time I was the only one to be so sure that something was a thing, only to find that I was overruled by reality. But I distinctly remembered personality books, these homemade booklets we used to put together in middle school and pass around for our friends (and frenemies) to sign.
“Do you remember personality books?” I texted my friend The Other Diane. “Because I think I dreamed them. Remember, they were made out of stapled notebook paper and each page had a question to answer and then there would be a kid’s name on the top of the page and we’d have to write what we thought of them.”
“I do,” she wrote back. “We got comments like funny or smart. But the popular girls were tuff. Sometimes they were called slam books, I think. What a bad idea.”
So I googled slam books and sweet Mary mother of Jesus they actually were a thing. And it was a bad idea alright. Slam books, personality books, whatever you want to call them were everything that is wrong with tweens, public schools and paper waste all bound up with i’s dotted with hearts and obnoxiously round loopy handwriting.
The fact that they weren’t in Mean Girls makes me wonder what’s going on in Hollywood these days. I mean, I know Tina Fey is younger than me, but did she grow up after the ’90s? Even my mind, sick with having watched too many British psychological thrillers, would be hard pressed to make up this stuff.
Here’s how they worked: You would come in from school, mix yourself a Carnation Instant Breakfast, grab a thick stack of notebook paper and your best purple Bic Banana pen, get on the rotary-dial phone as big as a groundhog, call your best friend and start creating your book.
Page One of your personality book was always the most important personal data: Name, Age, and Who Do You Like. Next came the basic questions: Favorite color. Favorite teacher. Favorite subject. (There were a lot of gyms and recesses. We were not the most original age bracket.)
And then it got down to pure adolescent hell. The top of a page would have the name of one of your classmates. Beside your corresponding number, you would write what you thought of that person.
These were passed around and filled out during classes. Who knows what diseases could have been annihilated by now if just one of us paid the slightest bit of attention in science class instead of writing Tuff and Cool under Andy and Sal’s names and Nice and Sweet for Debbie and Barb.
After learning that I hadn’t imagined them, I went on a mission to find my personality book from seventh grade. Fortunately I am a hoarder of epic proportions, so I went into the attic and dug through the mountains of crap I’ve kept for no other reason than to make my kids wish they had never been born.
And I found it.
What a treasure. If a treasure reminded you of how near intolerable middle school was.
Twenty-two people signed my book, ranging in age from 12 to 32. (My friend Connie’s dad signed my book, which falls under the category of Oh-1970s-what-was-the-matter-with-you.) Favorite groups included Chicago, Bread, and lots of Three Dog Night. Ryan O’Neil led the field in favorite actor, but Chad Everett made a good showing. Italian foods were favored, but bubble gum and baked potatoes were mentioned. Under “Who do you like?” my friend Barb wrote, “The Pillsbury Dough Boy” and we thought she was the most hilarious, cleverest thing in the tri-county area. If a vote had been taken that week, she would have been named Class Clown for Life.
We all appeared to be typical wholesome pre-teens in the front section of my personality book. The closest we got to being anything but Osmond-loving squares was Julie listing Black Sabbath as her favorite band.
Then it got to the kids’ names and it was like an airplane full of teen insecurity, resentment and self-hate crashed onto my middle school.
I called The Other Diane.
“Patty ruined my personality book by writing whore and skank next to almost every girl’s name,” I told her.
“Oooh. What did she say about me?” she said.
“She said, ‘OK.'”
“No, you were lucky,” I said, leafing through the book seeing what Signer #5 had said about everyone. “‘OK’ was the nicest thing she said. Two people were ‘crazy,’ one was ‘curly’ and one was ‘ugly fat queer pig that blows and got a big mouth’ and then she added ‘and more’ like some kind of advertising copywriter. Everyone else was either a whore, a skank or both.”
Reading through my slam book brought back some memories of the ’70s, for sure. For instance, I had forgotten that in 1972, a prick was a boy who broke up with a girl in an unnecessarily rude and insensitive way. We were 12 and 13 years old; I’m not sure those boys knew any other way to do it. It’s not like Ryan O’Neil was setting some kind of example.
There were days when you couldn’t get through a school day without being handed four to five personality books to fill out. Not one of us complained that we were being surveyed half to death. At that age, we didn’t know we were allowed to not like something that had taken hold so firmly and under the direction of the most popular kids in our class. No one, not even the kids who grew up to be full-time feminists in Chicago and fashion designers in LA and musicians in San Francisco had enough gumption to take a pass on a personality book.
So when one was passed to you, while Mr Lucas turned his back, you took it and you participated. You participating the heck out of it.
The best day was when you got passed a personality book and saw that your name was one of the pages. The worst day was when you read what everyone had said about you and there was more than one Don’t know hers.
That was so not tuff.