Head of School’s Notebook: Snow Days and Free Days

April 7, 2023

There is an unwritten understanding at Cate that if snow falls on the Mesa and an enterprising student (or students) can fashion a snowball from that snowfall and then strike the Head of School with it … then everybody gets a Free Day. Every Cate student knows this rule. It may be the most universally understood expectation at the School.

I have no idea how “the snowball rule” began, who started it, or anything else about its genesis. It could have been made up by some clever students for all I know. If so … well done. I have followed the rule dutifully, some would argue, until this year. More on that shortly.

In 2011, a strange weather system blew in. It was a Sunday and I was in Santa Barbara when I looked outside and saw precipitation that looked a lot like snow. Knowing the rules, I rushed to my car to drive back to campus and give students their shot. No one was at the house when I arrived but students had clearly been there. On my front doorstep was a small snowman, and various messages were written in the rather slender snowfall on the front lawn. “Free Day?” was among them.

So I set out for the main part of campus, eager to settle the question. As I arrived on senior lawn, I spied a number of students lying in wait behind bushes and stone walls near High House. They launched their attack a bit prematurely which gave me time to run. I was not going to make this easy. The rule says they have to hit me with a snowball. It doesn’t say I have to stand there and let them do it.

I’m not fast. But these were underclassmen and neither were they. Plus, they did not seem particularly adept at making or throwing snowballs. So the chase went on until Mo Batal ’14 got close enough to firmly plant his “snowball” on my back. History was made. A Free Day was called. And Mo carved his name in the record books.

For the intervening decade, Mother Nature did not see fit to bless us with snow. Then came this winter. The frequent and substantial snows in the mountains gave rise to lots of conversations about what constitutes “campus.” Two especially creative students collected snow from a Cate Yukon that had traveled into the mountains, made snowballs, put them in a cooler, and then hit me with one when I opened my front door. I gave them top marks for effort;  threw the snowball they hit me with back at them (it was pretty solid!); and reminded them that the snow has to fall and be collected on the Mesa.

“But the Yukon is Cate property,” they said. “The snow fell on Cate property.” Brilliant interpretation, I thought. But no. That was not the intent of the original drafters or so I imagined … whoever they were.

And then came Friday, February 24, the day it allegedly snowed on campus. I say allegedly because candidly, there is great disagreement as to the nature of the precipitation. No matter. Two seniors, Emmett Mack and Mary Foster, packed up what they claimed was a snowball and came looking for me. But I wasn’t there. I was in LA in the pouring rain wondering if I could possibly get back to campus. The storm was massive and the roads were a mess.

So Emmett and Mary found Jay Dorion, our Assistant Head, and struck him with what Jay said looked and felt like an ice ball. Then the kids got in touch with me and said they were ready to accept their Free Day. Oh, and this was on the last day of the Winter trimester and the day before Spring Break.

Questions abounded. Was it snow? Is it okay to hit the Assistant Head rather than the Head? Does timing matter? Is the snowball clause as they note in Pirates of the Caribbean a rule or “just a guideline?”  How much discretion should the Head of School have when or if a snowball finds its mark?

These are the critical questions we confront here on the Mesa. Not every day, obviously, but often enough. Those two seniors, Emmett and Mary, who hit Mr. Dorion had a meeting with me to continue their case last Friday afternoon. When I called a Free Day at assembly that day, they called our meeting off. Said Emmett to me later, “I’m glad you came to see things our way.”

Indeed.  Just another memorable Free Day on the Mesa!