Busy with friends, sports and the buzz of senior year, Travis Hofmann normally doesn't have a lot of interest in heart-to-heart talks with his parents. But when the Loch Raven High School student received his yearbook recently, he turned to the advertising section to find out just what his family thought about him - and what they had told the world.
The 18-year-old found a half-page spread with childhood pictures and an acrostic poem that listed memories and attributes to go with each letter of his first name. "T is for all the good times we've had watching you grow up," it began. "R is for those rebounds you grab out of the air."
Paid "grad ads" placed in yearbooks by parents, relatives and friends, have long been a ritual of graduation. But in recent years, the number of ads has surged - providing a lucrative way to offset the rising cost of publication. And at rates that range from $25 to more than $500, an ad can easily cost a senior's family more than the yearbook itself.
Some families would not dream of letting graduation pass without this public acknowledgment - and that includes families who can barely afford extras, said Kathleen Zwiebel, publications adviser at Pottsville Area High School in Pennsylvania and president of the Columbia Scholastic Press Advisers Association.
"Graduation from high school in an area like ours is huge," said Zwiebel. "This is the milestone for them. It's not just wealthy parents. ... They will buy that senior ad."
At some schools, the ads have caught on as yet another must-have memento of senior year. As more families spend less time together while they weather the increasing pressures of high school, the ads are seen as well-deserved congratulations for everyone who helped shepherd a child to the brink of independence.
Even though she has been spending money all year on Travis' senior activities, his mother, Mary Jo Hofmann, readily granted her son's request for a yearbook ad, sensing rare permission to unabashedly show her love and pride. "They do reject all of your efforts at hugs," she said, "and any kind of feeling conversation."
Travis Hofmann said he wanted an ad "so when I'm older, I can look back and see what I looked like and what they had to say to me."
Personal yearbook ads have become increasingly popular throughout the country since they started appearing in the 1980s, yearbook publishers say.
"There has been a tremendous growth," said Gary Lundgren, senior marketing manager for Jostens, a Minneapolis company that produces yearbooks.
At some Maryland schools, ads have become a hefty part of already heavy books.
Chesapeake Senior High School in Pasadena has gone from 14 ads a few years ago to nearly 200 this year. Broadneck High School in Annapolis has 180 pages of senior ads this year, 54 percent more than in 2000. Loch Raven, in Baltimore County, has 53 pages of ads in its 2005 book - some in color - compared with four black-and-white pages in 1987.
"The more [ads] they see in the books, the more the kids want them," said Sherri Foster, yearbook adviser at Chesapeake.
The ads often reflect the character of a school. At Baltimore's Western High School, girls' parents often request hands of prayer and quotes from the Bible, said yearbook adviser Charmaina Clay. At City College, students and their parents are particularly proud of making it through the rigorous International Baccalaureate program.
"It's just something we wanted to do to remember this day," said Connie Hawkins, who purchased space for a poem from the family for her daughter, Shantelle, who is to graduate from the program tomorrow. "There have been many tears, many late nights, times when she wanted to throw in the towel."
Seniors are also buying their own ads, in some cases to have greater say in a high school record that can easily favor the popular and the talented.
"It's all about them," Maureen McArdle, publications adviser at Northeast High School in Pasadena, said of the paid pages. "It's their chance to have something exactly the way they want."
At Loch Raven, a group of 10 friends bought a two-page spread in which they came up with their own superlatives, such as "Biggest Black Book" and "Most Likely to Be Heard a Mile Away."
Because the ads must be submitted well ahead of yearbook publication - by the fall before graduation, in some cases - they can be risky. Couples who buy pages together might well have broken up by the time the advertisement of their love appears.
"Some of these friends aren't really friends anymore," Chesapeake senior Amber Hartigan, 18, said this week as she leafed through her yearbook's ads.
But Hartigan said the page she bought with three pals - and filled with group pictures and inside sayings - would stand the test of time. "We are the bestest friends ever," she said.
Some seniors buy pages to write their own messages. Sarah Doran, a senior at Friends School of Baltimore, convinced her parents to foot the $500 bill for a half-page spread in which she told about 25 friends what they meant to her.
Doran, 18, said she wanted the ad because it would give her more time and space to compose a message than just writing in each person's yearbook after it was published.
"It was sort of like a final heart-to-heart," she said. "I think I was very honest, and I think I was little bit, possibly, overtly emotional."
With more ads being placed, schools have had to come up with policies. When divorced parents submit separate ads for the same student, yearbook advisers are often careful to put some space between them.
At some schools, bathing-suit photos are out. Baby pictures are fine, as long as they don't show too much skin.
Still, there's ample room for embarrassment, as Chesapeake senior Dustin Lloyd found. "I can't believe they put in that picture," he said, looking at an ad that included a photo of his toddler self, sucking his thumb.
But Lloyd appreciated the pride his family expressed. As graduation approaches Wednesday, he had hoped for some pronouncement.
"I've been waiting for them to say something," he said. "It's kind of a surprise to see it in writing."
Though ads are popular, plenty of students and their families forgo them - because ads are too expensive on top of already costly senior activities or because they shun the public display.
Though he was editor of the 2005 yearbook, Chesapeake senior Jeremy Pevner told his family not to bother buying space: "I don't need my parents to put an ad in the yearbook to tell me that they love me."
Others want the sentiment on the record.
"It's definitely an opportunity for them to express something that I guess I wouldn't hear on a regular basis," said Shannon Paige, a senior at Towson Catholic High School.
She said she knows her parents are proud of her, but "it's not something we can do at home at the dinner table. This will last forever."
Once the ads run, though, they do not necessarily open up a new fountain of communication between parent and child.
Travis Hofmann teased his mother about his ad, telling her it wasn't as mushy as everyone else's - or as large as some. As for how he felt about the message itself, the teenager remained coy.
"I kind of tried to get a reaction," Mary Jo Hofmann said. "I'm not sure I got much."