BERKELEY'S NEWS • SEPTEMBER 25, 2022

Stepping on the seal

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AUGUST 11, 2022

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“Wait wait wai- aw, dude.” The passing student pointed at the space between my feet. I looked down to see a golden seal embossed with the words let there be light.

“You just fucked your grades,” he said, like I’d been diagnosed with something fatal, before disappearing without another word.

As someone whose grades were virginalpure, shielded from failure I was horrified. It was my first week of college and some magical force had already popped my academic cherry. I was at a loss. Overachieving was the only thing I knew how to do.

Of course, I should’ve done my homework on these little landmines. For 150 years, we’ve been a campus that perpetuates silly curses and superstitions, the academic death sentence of stepping on the seal is being one of our earliest.

Actually, there are three seals encircling Memorial Glade. As the story goes, grazing any one of them with even a shoelace dooms you to graduate with at best, a 3.99.

The origin of the curse is disputed, but I like to picture an old Big Sur lifeguard telling tourists not to step on elephant seals. Apparently, it stuck.

The seals are meant to memorialize the sacrifices of the classes of ‘45 to ‘47 who served in World War II. I’m all for it, but why is my bCourses being haunted by the spirits of heroes? Don’t they have a victory to celebrate?

While terrifying freshmen into studying is a horrible way to salute our veterans, my first issue is with the curse’s lack of creativity. A fear of seals is not unique to northern California. Boston, Auburn, Virginia Tech, Miami — they all have some version of tarnishing your transcript with one misstep.

My second is the curse’s supposed antidote. According to campus mythology, if you do happen to step on a seal, you must run to the “4.0 ball” at the foot of the Campanile and rub or kiss it. I won’t explore the implications of believing rubbing and kissing balls will improve your grades, but you see my point.

Third, the curse is discriminatory. It should be curved based on the individual. Telling a mechanical engineering major they can’t have flawless midterms is like telling a vegetarian we’re out of steak sauce. Meanwhile, the thought of an A- might send a Haas hopeful into cardiac arrest.

Lastly, it excludes the rest of the community that doesn’t have a GPA. If a tenured lecturer walks over the seal, their RateMyProfessor score doesn’t go down. If Christopher Nolan stumbles across it while location scouting, it wouldn’t tank Oppenheimer’s box office numbers.

I think we can all agree it’s time for an update. We need a superstition based on inclusive, equitable dread, not the lopsided hex we have now.

The new curse, the one I’m casting today, won’t take your grades to bed.

Instead, it will reward you for spending as much time on the seals as you can. Imagine a stomp giving you the confidence to ace a midterm, or a shuffle improving your relationship with your GSI. Maybe you could camp out there to charge up for your thesis presentation.

In fact, I think we should all step on the seal, and consistently. I think GBO groups should conga-line around the glade and hit all three in the first week. If not simply as an exercise in thinking for ourselves, then as a middle finger to the divine grade-point calculus. The memory of students that fought for freedom should set us free.

And I understand the impulse to brush this off. The current curse connects us to a long history of Berkeley students that have sidestepped these plaques and gone on to define our world.

But we should interrogate what these traditions are telling us to value in ourselves. If they revolve around stressing about a point here or there, it tells us that being a Bear means living an anxious academic life. The seals, 4.0 ball: the parts we choose to mythologize carry our values onward.

A largely imaginary number does not get to dictate the “best four years of my life.” I know that the value of my education lies in the people I meet, the activities I pursue and the things I learn, not the number hidden deep in CalCentral.

So, I’m done stressing about balls, spirits and my GPA’s sex life.

This semester, I’m taking the least amount of units I ever have. I’m in Theater 110, Drugs and the Brain, a gender studies course called Why Work? and, to top it off, Volleyball 4. I will be taught to make faces, study drugs, quit jobs and play games.

And I’m the most excited I’ve ever been. I’m on track to graduate, all thanks to that sunny day by the glade when I trampled my high-school perfectionism to death.

For the future generations of Berkeley-goers, the next time you find yourself staring at a placard and correcting your path, don’t. Walk with purpose and enjoy the freedom of giving that golden seal a good, muddy footprint.

Contact Luke Stiles at 

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AUGUST 11, 2022


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