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Opinion: A house divided

Published November 4, 2013

The weather forecast was clear, but my Twitter feed flashed with lightning and thunder. As members from each grade engaged in combat over social media on the Wednesday night of Spirit Week at Palo Alto High School, I decided to wave my white flag. That’s right, I gave up on trying to win. And thus if you stumbled upon me at school you would have seen me clad in sweatpants, instead of in my sophisticate attire. Simply put, I refused to buy into the mean-spirited competition that Spirit Week had become.

Spirit Week is supposed to unify each grade, and if done correctly, unifying each grade is a good thing. But in some years (like this one), unity can be harmful. With unity comes a feeling of power, and this year, that power went to some people’s heads. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” And Paly, I’m sorry to say, I think many of us failed Honest Abe’s test.

The Spirit Week competition had become a bit heated on campus, resulting in multiple physical incidents for which classes were penalized. The Spirit Week scoring system allowed for a maximum of 50 points to be deducted for poor sportsmanship and behavior. The incidents included angry cheers spewed from grade to grade, silly stringing, hay bale destroying, pushing and shoving, and food throwing.

Let’s reflect upon our performance on this test of character.

We live in Palo Alto, and we Palo Altans love numbers — so let’s look at the data. Based on points reported by the Voice, the average 2012 point total difference between each grade was about 1,782 points.The average 2013 point total difference between each grade was about 817 points. In comparing 2012 and 2013 scoring reports, we see how the closer proximity of the point totals this year may have contributed to the increased frenzy of competition. Also, last year, each grade placed according to respective seniority. This year, the sophomores clinched a second place victory over the third place juniors. We can infer that the sophomore’s consistent lead throughout the week angered the junior class.

Onto qualitative data: If we look at last year’s behavior, we see that there were no standout issues that came to the attention of the entire student body. However, this year, there were multiple instances of aggressive acts aimed from one grade to another. I’d say we reached a solid B- on the test by halfway through the week.

The point totals were closer to each other, which increased competitiveness. The shift of power based on points from juniors to sophomores left the juniors feeling vulnerable and hungry for success. The sophomores’ egos and motivations were fueled by their success. The seniors, who originally felt invincible by their seniority, began to feel threatened by the sophomores. These grades acted out against each other, because in the end, it was all about the power. This thirst for power and victory was the root cause of the tension and behavioral problems between grades.

Spirit Week gives students power to use for the better, to raise each other up and unite. This power also gives students a framework to use for the worse to hurt and insult mass numbers of people. It seems that the Spirit Week competition has evolved into a fight around who will win and hold the most power over the other grades.

As the rude tweets continued and the days passed, we fell down to about a D+.

Although each grade was united as a class, the unity was not as a whole school but as four opposing factions. I, for one, made remarks dissing other grades. Even though I tried not to care, something inside of me tugged at my heart and competitive edge when the sophomores chanted “Scoreboard, Scoreboard, Scoreboard.” And it’s because I, just like you, wanted that power. The power of victory and to hold myself above the other grades.

After getting a bad score on a test, it is important to figure out why we received the score we did and how to do better next time. This one Spirit Week failure does not mean Paly students are bad people. It just means that we need to have some perspective. We need to think about what legitimately matters and how to use the power we are given to do good. Is it really worth it to involve hundreds of people in chanting a targeted cheer? We need to internalize how to accept that others have power when we do not. Does it really matter that the sophomores beat the juniors?

As I recently tweeted into the storm, “Spirit week is about having fun and school pride!” All in all, we need to make some changes before next year’s Spirit Week comes about by:

1. Improve the scoring system to promote positive behaviors, such as awarding significant points for the grade that demonstrates the best sportsmanship throughout the week instead of only deducting points from the sportsmanship category.

2. Include a few team competitions in which grades are paired together. For instance, seniors paired with juniors versus freshman paired with sophomores for one event and seniors and freshmen versus juniors and sophomores for another event.

I propose not just an armistice but a lasting peace. We should promote positive school spirit throughout the year. So my fellow Paly students, relax and breathe. Spirit points do not translate into anything in the real world. Remember that it’s all in good fun. Being able to throw toilet paper through a hula hoop does not define anyone as a person. It just means you have good aim.

And understand that with power comes responsibility. We owe it to the people working so hard to organize Spirit Week events to be respectful and use the power of unified students for a better purpose than to win bragging rights.

Let’s be mindful of Lincoln’s wise words and build a better school community.


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