On a cool March day, Ramon Machuca entered Arlington's Washington-Lee High School decked out in a creamy baby-blue Armani button-down shirt, svelte Banana Republic black pants, matching Armani Exchange-inscribed belt and socks and chunky Sketchers leather boots.
The teenager, who works at a dry cleaner so he can keep his wardrobe spotless, was certain he would snag his school yearbook's award as the "Best Dressed" male senior during that day's voting.
But to his dismay, he lost out to another boy, one who sports a more preppy style. Ramon's friends, most of them Hispanic, were shocked. They started a petition for a recount and complained that most of the yearbook award winners were white. In response, the yearbook staff pointed to a few black and Asian American seniors who had won and said that Ramon and other Hispanic students just didn't have the votes.
"I was and still am so depressed," said Ramon, 17, as he looked through the so-called senior superlatives in the yearbook, which came out last week. "I should have won."
It's supposed to be fun, but increasingly the annual awards listed in high school yearbooks across the Washington area have sparked arguments and resentment. Bitter debates have ensued over who won, whether the voting was fair, whether ethnic minorities were properly represented and whether some of the categories were too mean-spirited.
The awards have been been a staple of yearbooks for decades. But while they used to consist of benign resume-stuffers such as "Most Likely to Succeed" and "Best Athlete," many of the citations have become less kind in recent years. Current yearbooks list such awards as "Worst Driver," "Biggest Slacker," "Worst Hair," "Next Backstreet Boy," and "Most Likely to Live at Home With Parents."
Some school officials have reacted by cutting back on the irreverent categories, or putting them into more politically correct language--changing "Class Clown" to "Funniest," and "Fastest Girl" to "Biggest Flirt." Other schools have doubled the number of categories so that the most popular few students won't grab all the accolades. And some schools have stopped printing the awards, deciding they're just too much trouble.
The problems come in many forms. At Bladensburg High School in Prince George's County, this year's yearbook staff got a call that the students named "Cutest Couple" had broken up. The couple wanted the item pulled from the yearbook.
But it was too late--the section had already gone to print. Last year, yearbook adviser Elias Vlanton had to rush to the printer to pull the "Cutest Couple" photo because the girl in it suddenly realized she didn't want her mother to know she was dating anyone. "That time, we just caught it," Vlanton said.
At Fairfax High School, several categories were junked this year after students and teachers complained that they were causing hurt feelings. For example, "Biggest Rebel" became "Most Responsible" and "Most Unique" was changed to "Most Talented." The school also set up a three-person committee to tally the votes, after complaints that the in crowd and the students who ran the yearbook were winning the most coveted honors.
At Anacostia High School in the District, a recount was conducted that changed some of the results. Another flap occurred when some yearbook staffers wanted to run a category called "Gayest"--an award that would go to the most effeminate male senior. The yearbook adviser, Leon Harrison, overruled them.
In Montgomery County, Damascus High School stopped printing the senior superlatives several years ago. At Park View High School in Loudoun County, yearbook adviser Dave Arbogast put an end to all the categories this year.
No one has conducted a survey tracking how many schools have stopped printing the awards, but those who judge yearbooks in national contests said the number appears to be increasing.
Some of the educators who frown on negative categories say they're worried not only about hurting someone's feelings, but also about exposing their school to a libel suit.
"What if you vote someone 'Class Clown,' and years later they run for mayor and their opponent runs the yearbook superlative in an ad?" said Arbogast, who attended a workshop on yearbook publishing in which participants were warned about the risk of legal action.
Todd Simon, director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism at Kansas State University, which runs a national yearbook contest, says he opposes printing senior superlatives--not because of legal concerns, but because the awards are divisive.
"They are cliquish awards," Simon said. "They are inside group jokes, and maybe all the students won't get it. The yearbook should be for everyone. The short-term laugh of making fun of someone is not worth all the hassles."
At Yorktown High School in Arlington, Erin Wilcox didn't think it was funny when yearbook editors told her she had been chosen in a category called "God's Gift to Mankind" and asked her to pose for an accompanying photo. She asked them not to run her name or picture.
"It meant I am the most conceited person in school," said Erin, 18. "A lot of people don't know me. The group of girls I hang out with are a clique and all dress nice. But I'm the most quiet when it comes to talking to people in school, and so they assume I am stuck up. The award is not something I really wanted people to think about me."
Although the yearbook editors agreed not to list her award, it was included in the "underground awards" announced by Yorktown's student government at the senior class picnic and, in a mock tribute, Wilcox was given a mirror and brush.
Meggie Lyles, on the other hand, laughed it off when her Yorktown classmates voted her "Worst Driver." She admits to having had "a few run-ins with a few curbs." But her father had a different reaction.
"I didn't think that was very fair because I know her friends and I see their cars," said David Lyles. "I am proud of my daughter and what she has done in high school. Anything that's cruel, or makes fun of someone for some kind of physical feature or memorializes something that is transient in high school, could be hurtful."
Why did the cheery categories of years past turn into something more negative? Some teachers say the tone of the awards simply reflects an era in which society isn't as polite. Others say that with so much political correctness in schools, the yearbook has become one of the only ways for students to blow off steam and poke fun at each other.
"I think there is some frustration among young people who have such few opportunities to say what they think," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which advises yearbook staffs. Goodman says he has seen categories such as "Best Butt" and "Most Likely To Become a Janitor" in some yearbook listings.
Some parents see the awards as lighthearted and say they shouldn't be made into a big controversy.
Norma Brooks was amused when her son, Daniel Lichterman, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School, won "Most Likely to Crash at Parents' House for Two Years." Other categories at Montgomery Blair included "Most Likely to Own a Car From the 1950s" and "Most Likely to Be an MTV VeeJay."
"I think it's great; you have to laugh it off. This is part of their culture, part of their world," said Brooks, who is a family psychologist. "I would not even try to interrupt it."
Some teachers think that losing in the yearbook voting is good preparation for disappointments the students will face in adult life. "High school can be a vicious place," said Angela Gross, the yearbook adviser at Yorktown. "These are lessons that they will also use when they leave school, that not everyone gets what they want."
Rodney Scott, the yearbook adviser at Spingarn Senior High School in the District, sees the awards as an important lesson in civics. Many students informally campaign for the citations, telling friends, "Vote for me for 'Best Eyes.' "
"People complain about not winning," said Scott. "First I tell them that they have to vote, and they have to get their people involved. If they didn't do that, they can't complain."
Eddie Ballew, 18, was named "Most Spirited" at Fairfax High. He felt he deserved it. As the school mascot, he has dressed as a giant blue puffball at football games for the past four years. He saw the award as something to show his grandchildren.
"I can say, 'Look, kids, I wasn't that much of a loser,' " Eddie said. "I hope that kids who didn't get it would be able to get over it."
As they sat leafing through the yearbook, Ramon Machuca and his friends at Washington-Lee said they are still sad. But they said they will be sure to tell next year's senior class, especially the Hispanic students, to get more involved in the voting, the selection of categories and the counting of votes.
Ramon said he will just have to show his children and grandchildren his prom picture to prove that he was indeed the best-dressed male student at Washington-Lee High School.
"No matter what the yearbook says," he said, as his friends cheered.