ZOOMING AWAY: Releasing the elephant from the newsroom

This story marks the end of about 1,000 hours poured into the Octagon this year. That’s an average of 27 hours per week!

Between attending paste-ups, elective periods and meetings with Mr. Bauman and the other editors-in-chief; writing, editing and posting stories; answering staffers’ texts with essays; and financing the Octagon as business manager, the Octagon has rivaled schoolwork and become my favorite method of productive procrastination.

I absolutely love being on the Octagon — I highly recommend reading Héloïse’s senior goodbye, which explains a few of the many aspects I enjoy — and am proud of the product of these hours.

However, my experience has often been marred by a harmful, pervasive aspect of Country Day’s culture.

In my final article, I want to address the hateful attitude toward the Octagon despite the school’s mission statement of nurturing “empathy, integrity and responsibility in a safe and supportive community that values kindness, respect and civic engagement.”

We need to change this culture, inside and outside the walls of the Cave. Everyone has a role to play. 

To those who resent the Octagon, I understand you may have been misquoted, your interviewer may have been late or you may feel wronged for another reason, and on behalf of the Octagon, I apologize. We take our responsibilities as journalists seriously, always quote-checking and correcting mistakes, and we appreciate your time and involvement. 

People, especially high schoolers, are flawed, and we, on the Octagon, are no exception. All professionals commit errors, and in journalism, those mistakes can have serious consequences. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to rectify them, which we always do. 

With this in mind, understand that we aim for professional quality with high school-level resources and training. Despite our best efforts, errors slip through the cracks and damage our relationship with the student body, teachers and administration. 

Just as newspapers hold people accountable, our readers must also hold us accountable. 

But the anti-Octagon discussions and jokes I heard daily pre-quarantine were not productive, rarely proposing changes or offering advice. In fact, most of these conversations served only to vilify and belittle the newspaper, its staff and the long hours poured into the publication. 

For example, during a class presentation in which seniors discussed anything they wanted — a project meant to help us get to know each other better — a peer used the opportunity to disparage the Octagon. 

“You know what I would do to fix the Octagon?” he joked. 

“Get rid of it.”

The class erupted into laughter, while fellow editor-in-chief Anna Frankel and I exchanged upset looks of horror, embarrassment and ostracization. Would the class’s reaction and the teacher’s lack thereof be the same if the crack had been made at Jazz Band? Volleyball? Mock Trial?

Exemplifying Country Day’s attitude toward the Octagon, comments such as this one build a baneful atmosphere that not only demonizes the student publication at a time when community and truth are crucial, but also strips students of their pride in their hard work. 

If I’m able to spark change with this final article, I want future students to feel represented and empowered by the Octagon and future staffers to feel supported by their peers, teachers and administration. 

It may take generations of students to completely achieve this, but you can take the first step toward that respectful environment that will not only allow Octagon staffers, but the entire student body, to flourish. A supported Octagon can better support students — showcasing their accomplishments, informing them of school developments and amplifying their voices — and the school as a whole. 

I know Country Day cares about its students. I know my peers are empathetic and want to see their friends thrive. So let’s start ending this toxic culture that contradicts everything SCDS stands for. 

To students:

We’re here because we love what we do, but we’re also here for you — to inform you, celebrate you and ensure your voice is heard. 

To facilitate this, I introduced the Story Idea Box at the beginning of the year: a box in which students could submit the stories they wanted to be written. However, the box remained empty the entire year. 

Communicate with us. Offer suggestions and constructive feedback. 

But above all, don’t turn your backs on us if we make a mistake and correct it. 

Student groups aren’t perfect. Work with us so we can use our errors to improve. 

Nothing is gained by bashing the Octagon. What could you gain by supporting it? 

To teachers:

When we put 1,000 hours into something we love, it’s constantly mocked by students and teachers say nothing or even join in, it hurts. It feels incredibly personal. 

There is a harmful cultural norm at SCDS in which deriding the Octagon is acceptable. If students kept ridiculing an orchestra performance in front of the musicians, how would you react? 

To administrators: 

We need to treat each other respectfully.

No real newspaper has a perfect relationship with its administration. (Those that do are propaganda machines.) But if we reframe our relationship to one of respect instead of viewing each other as threats to achieving our respective objectives, we’ll be able to communicate better — which is beneficial for everyone. 

Earlier in the year, I spoke with an administrator who treated us as a threat. In front of a group of students, the administrator disrespectfully interrogated us and asked for prior review of a story, which could operationalize censorship. 

Later, head of high school Brooke Wells took a better approach to the same situation. Instead of talking at me, he talked with me, and we discussed the situation and came to an understanding.

We’re not your enemy. We share the goal of making Country Day an exceptional community. With the Octagon’s finger on the pulse of community opinion, and given the administration’s ability to effect change, a symbiotic relationship between us will significantly benefit SCDS. 

And finally, to my fellow staffers: 

Thank you for all your hard work and dedication. Over this past year, I’ve learned so much from you.

However, the following lesson is more important than anything else you’ve learned this year (yes, even comma before coordinating conjunction separating two independent clauses): 

We need to have each other’s backs. 

I know it’s easier to go with the flow and diss the Octagon — tempting, even, when the work piles up and the editors dump mountains of comments on your stories. I felt the same as an underclassman before I took on more responsibilities. 

But in the end, it’s only detrimental to you, your friends and our work. 

Take ownership of the Octagon — the good and the bad. Be proud of the publication and your achievements, and be empowered by contributing to something greater than yourself. 

This also means taking ownership of our mistakes, even if it wasn’t your fault. As easy as it is to push the blame on someone else and distance ourselves from the error, we need to stand by one another. 

Because if we don’t establish solidarity among ourselves, how can we expect it from others?

—By Larkin Barnard-Bahn

Originally published in the May 26 edition of the Octagon.