Books or Belgian Waffles?

Visiting Author Kate Scelsa speaks to the Upper School.

Visiting Author Kate Scelsa speaks to the Upper School.

A recent incident of wide-scale unexcused absences from the Berkeley Carroll Visiting Speaker Program, and the school’s reaction to those absences, have focused attention on whether or not this program should be mandatory.

The Visiting Speaker Program features presentations by authors, war veterans, business owners, and entrepreneurs, among others. The presentations take place during the school’s Office Hours period, which is crucial to students who use this time to meet with teachers, do last-minute homework, or study for tests. Office Hours is even more critical to students because this is when muffins and other breakfast items are provided in the dining hall.

During a recent visiting speaker event, in which Kate Scelsa was speaking about her new book, nearly 10 upper school students failed to make an appearance. Their absence was quickly noticed by the faculty. The Speaker Program is mandatory for all upper school students, and skipping the event results in a loss of privileges.

The twelfth grade dean, Mr. Jacquet, said that attendance at all visiting speaker events is, and should be, mandatory. “The speaking events are part of the school’s program, and we think carefully about who we invite — it’s an extension of classroom learning,” he said. Mr. Jacquet punished the guilty parties with a loss of privileges for three days and a note to all their parents.

An investigation into the absences revealed that five of the students, who will remain anonymous, were studying for tests because, as seniors, they need to get the best grades possible as they apply to college. The rest of the offenders, also seniors, needed Belgian waffles. The group was dismayed by the fact that the speaking program canceled breakfast, and went together to the Park Café.

“One hundred percent — I couldn’t have skipped that speaker more,” said a student who missed the event because of hunger. “I was starving,” the student said. However, the student said that skipping the event ultimately was not worth it because, as it turned out, “I didn’t want anything at Park Café.” The student also said that the punishment was fair, that he/she would not skip again, and that the events should be mandatory.

Some of the students admitted they skipped, but wouldn’t specify where they were during the event. One student didn’t mind sharing his identity. Senior Oliver Watson simply said, “I had alternative obligations.” Another said, “I was thinking about going, but then I was like ‘Yeet!’”

Other offenders used their time wisely. Said one senior: “I was studying for a calc test, and as I am applying for colleges this semester my grades affect the rest of my life. A visiting speaker doesn’t have much significance in the long run.” This student said skipping the event was worth it and that he/she would “100 percent” do it again.

Another student, who was also studying, took a similar stand. “It was worth it because of my results. However, upon reflection, I think it is important to attend all assemblies for a sense of community.” This student said the punishment was fair, but that it was not necessary to contact parents. This student does not think that attendance at visiting speakers should be mandatory for seniors. Another student who also used the time to study said it was worth it because of the results — a 92% on a math test.

Mr. Jacquet was aware that some of the students who skipped the event were studying, but said he believes that a visiting speaker should be prioritized over studying. “Announcements are made at grade level meetings and students have access to upcoming events through the Morning Announcements google doc. Knowing changes in schedule beforehand should give students ample time to budget their time.” As for the punishment, Mr. Jacquet believes that “life has consequences.” Mr. Jacquet said that the punishment the offenders received was fair.

Several students who did not skip the event, but also asked to remain anonymous, felt strongly that the visiting speaker program should be mandatory. When asked “Why didn’t you skip?” the student replied, “Because I am a proud member of the Berkeley Carroll community, and I’m grateful for all opportunities the school provides.” Another student who did not skip the event said, “Berkeley Carroll is a community that I care deeply about. High education is at the heart of my learning.”

The skipping incident leaves us wondering: should the students who skipped the event to do school-related work be punished? Or, instead, should the students who used their time to eat and hang out be punished? Should there have been a more extensive investigation before the students were punished? The Visiting Speaker Program is a mandatory event, but it comes down to decisions, and what you think are good decisions. As Mr. Jacquet would say, “Life has consequences.” You just have to be willing to live with them.