Op-Ed: Convocation Controversy

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School convocations put a question mark in students’ minds.

After a convocation, students have opinions. Some might keep their thoughts to themselves as they head to their next class. At the end of the day, some might talk about what they heard. Some might have loved the speaker, while some might have disliked the message. Some people laughed, and unfortunately, some people cried.
It’s likely the conversations remain brief (Got to get to class!) and primarily among like-minded people. Without any official opportunity for feedback and reflection, the benefit of the convocation might be lost.
Large groups of students assemble at convocations not knowing what to expect. After listening to speeches about different topics from different speakers, students might not know how they feel at first. It’s hard to reflect when you have to go straight to class and put on your game face. There are students who might discuss it, but not everyone has the time to get as deep as they want to.
Like most teenagers, our students have strong opinions. Discussions are a great way of exchanging ideas and safely releasing emotions, so if it is possible, it would be a great idea to have a period of open discussion the day after a convocation.
For example, the recent Veterans Day convocation provoked a variety of responses.
On Veterans Day this year, Bolles invited Drew Berquist ‘99, Bolles grad and former counterterrorism officer. Dr. K planned the convocation, and sought help getting a speaker from Alumni Development Officers Ryan Trevett and Rahul Sharma, Mr. Hilf and Mr. Tepas, who have both seen military service. According to Dr. K, Berquist was seen as someone who could relate to the students because of his age and football career.
Berquist was given talking points: focus on honor, duty, and the sacrifices military families make. It was an honor for Bolles to bring in its own graduate who experienced military service and intelligence service, and his speech was meant to inspire the students.
“I thought he was awesome,” was heard in the halls.
However, his dehumanizing comments, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi taking a “dirt nap,” interrogations being referred to as “heartwarming conversations,” and then generalizing the Middle East as a place filled with terrorists, made some teachers and students feel uncomfortable, especially our Muslim and Middle Eastern students.
Throughout the day, others felt confused, disappointed, and offended. For those students, this speech didn’t have the impact that Berquist may have wanted.
It is understandable that people work hard to plan these convocations, and I have nothing but respect for Bolles, especially because I am a Bolles lifer.

Although a lot of planning takes place in order to bring a speaker to our campus, it is important to find out what the person might really stand for. It’s acceptable, and vital, to show a wide variety of perspectives.
Although speakers might depart from their talking points, the school must consider that students and parents will ask if the speaker’s words reflect the school’s values, especially if the speaker is a Bolles graduate and the speech is on the school’s website. If students or parents choose to further research the speaker, they should find a credible human being at the end of the trail.
Though the students cannot control a speaker’s message, it would be better to find a way for students to process what we hear. Open discussions are already used in classrooms to talk about a wide variety of topics.
Bolles students will sit through many different convocations each year, but whether students feel they are good or bad, whole school convocations should end with an opportunity to reflect.