Photograph by Sophie Rodrigues-Bell
For decades, Spirit Week, now known as Unity Week, at Berkeley High School (BHS) has been a week for students to unite and demonstrate pride in being a Yellowjacket. Each of Unity Week’s five days offers a unique dress-up theme, drawing massive participation from the student body and staff. The week closes on a wild note: Friday’s Red and Gold Day. Nicknamed “Rally Day,” for some students Red and Gold Day is the most anticipated event of the school year. Students sift through thrift stores and the backs of their closets, creating original outfits that integrate BHS’s school colors of red and gold. They arrive at school wearing as much, or as little, as possible, sporting bathing suits, ski goggles, and other random accessories.
The day itself is set up as a normal school day, but its energy is far from normal. Students jump, dance, scream, and swarm areas around campus, energized by the extreme adrenaline of the day. Although Red and Gold Day seems like a safe, school-sponsored event that ends Unity Week on a fun yet crazy note, dangers and controversial realities exist alongside the mayhem.
“Red and Gold day is meant to be a day of the culmination of a public display of pride for the school mixed in with fun,” said John Villavicencio, the director of student activities.
As the main organizer of the events, Villavicencio has noticed how the day and its purpose have changed over the years. He mentioned how in the past, the day and week were centered around a Spirit Cup and assembly. At the event, different grade levels would participate in a variety of challenges and activities to win the Cup. This was only ten or 15 years ago, but since then, all of these activities have been cancelled, and the old Red and Gold Day is drastically different from the Red and Gold day that exists today. “What it seems to have evolved to, unfortunately, is a lot of class warfare … grade levels are in a sense trying to intimidate and demonstrate some kind of superiority over other grades,” Villavicencio explained. “Only on this one day, one person can be the person that you sit next to in math class, and all of a sudden they are yelling at you just because you are another grade level.”
This tension between grade levels and the necessity to demonstrate superiority over younger grades has been viewed negatively by BHS students. An alum from the class of 2016, Zach Varon, remembered events from his freshman year. “There were a lot of seniors who would push freshman during passing period,” said Varon.
“It was kind of overwhelming and scary because everyone was like f**k ‘21,” Eszter Molnar, a current BHS sophomore recalled from last year’s Red and Gold Day. She also witnessed upperclassmen demonstrating physical aggression towards freshmen who were yelling their year, 2021, in the hallways. “It was strange. Shouldn’t Rally Day unite us instead of dividing us?” said Molnar.
“There is some unfortunate sense in it that [Red and Gold Day] is some sort of pass day where whatever happens on campus has no consequences,” Villavicencio said. Molnar agrees with Villavicencio, saying “people treat Rally Day as a day to go crazy and rule the school without giving a second thought.” This is not just the belittling of other classes, but also the mass substance usage on campus. “Drugs and alcohol are definitely used during classes … I’ve seen students with water bottles of alcohol and holding bags of drugs, and that’s just part of Rally Day,” Molnar added.
“During all four of my Rally Days there was heavy drinking,” recalled Varon. Villavicencio saw the dangers of this firsthand. “Starting in my first year in this position, I definitely saw the harmful effects, like twenty or thirty people in the health center, semiconscious … that’s how serious it can be,” Villavicencio said.
In recent years, Berkeley High’s administration and staff have instigated ways to minimize the potential dangers of Red and Gold Day, such as appointing parent volunteers and staggering dismissal times.
However, other than implementing strict consequences, the administration has yet to find an incentive to continue the high energy of the day without substance usage. Villavicencio is trying to find a way to end the belittling of other classes. “We have not been able to figure out what can drive the motivation for students to not put their energy at each other,” he said.
Regardless of these darker sides of Red and Gold Day, it is an essential aspect of the Berkeley High experience. As Molnar said, “Rally day is crazy, but in the best way possible.”