A popular meme account has increasingly become a news source and virtual gathering place for Berkeley High students during the pandemic. Photo: Nancy Rubin

For many Berkeley High seniors, the conclusion of their K-12 career feels less than climactic this year.

“You always imagine this one moment of relief at end of year: I worked really hard and finally get to wear a stupid cap and gown and walk the stage,” said one graduating student. While BUSD is hosting a virtual graduation ceremony, there’s little opportunity this year for the communal revelry and cap throwing.

That particular senior is a bit less powerless in the face of these challenges than most of his classmates, however. The student secretly runs BHS Memes (@bhs_memes_), a prolific Instagram account with about 3,650 followers — more than the number of students at the school. The account is a digital encapsulation of the Berkeley High zeitgeist, serving as a repository for searing and silly commentary on campus events and, these days, as a forum where socially isolated students can reconnect.

When it began to look like an in-person graduation ceremony was a no-go, the anonymous student, whom we’ll call The Memer, floated an idea via Instagram story: a digital graduation at a replica of the Greek Theatre built on the popular video game platform Minecraft.

At that point, the idea of a Minecraft graduation was, like most content on BHS Memes, a joke. But after a group of students at UC Berkeley who by Blockeley made global headlines for their own highly elaborate Minecraft campus and graduation, The Memer reached out to them and asked to borrow their version of The Greek, the venue where Berkeley High used to hold graduation ceremonies every June. Now the virtual event is set to go down June 13.

“I could not imagine missing my senior year of high school. All of us have such fond memories of high school graduation so we wanted to facilitate what we could,” said Nick Pickett, a new Cal graduate and member of Blockeley, which is providing advice to BHS Memes along with a digital Greek Theatre “decorated” to match an old photograph of a Berkeley High ceremony.

So BHS Memes is now dabbling in (virtual) event-planning. But throughout the pandemic, and long before it too, the account has mainly functioned as a sort of edgier B-side to a student newspaper.

When a Berkeley High student government candidate cast hundreds of fraudulent votes for himself in 2019, the account alluded to the incident, using a popular meme format from the movie Thor Ragnarok, three days before the administration emailed the student body about the case.

When the coronavirus hit and Berkeley High optimistically postponed prom for a month — before, of course, canceling the event altogether — the account posted a snippet of the email announcement, along with a stock image of two people in hazmat suits holding each other in a classic prom pose, Photoshopped onto a picture of the Berkeley Rose Garden, the setting for many a BHS prom photoshoot over the ages.

Another pandemic meme said, “Since Berkeley has gone on lockdown the natural wildlife is finally returning home. The earth is healing. Maybe WE are the virus.” The “wildlife” shown in the photo below? Several Kiwibot food-delivery robots roaming around.

Some of the biggest news of the year for Berkeley High broke after the virus closed all campuses: Principal Erin Schweng announced in April that she’d leave her post in June.

Immediately the account posted a few memes, including a couple referencing Berkeley High’s high rate of principal turnover. In the comments, students reflected on Schweng’s tenure, sharing jokes and memories and, in a couple cases, expressing feelings of culpability.

“Whenever there’s a post, I feel a redeeming sense of school spirit.” – The Memer

“Lmao this page is the cure to my depression,” commented one student.

In fact, the whole account is a sort of running joke about former Principal Sam Pasarow, who abruptly went on leave, then resigned without explanation, in 2017. His face is the profile picture for the account, and Pasarow himself is known to pop up in the comments section on occasion. When BHS counseling staff posted an image with each counselor holding up signs that collectively spelled out a sweet message to students during the pandemic, the meme account scrambled the letters, ransom note-style, to spell out “Where is Mr. Pasarow.” (“Here,” he wrote in the comments.)

Turning a platform for stereotypes into a megaphone for student voices

The Instagram account was handed down to The Memer and a couple of his friends in the fall of 2018 by the students who used to run it. When he took it over, The Memer felt like he’d stepped onto a vast stage.

“I was pretty amazed I had power over it,” he said. “It feels like a very culturally important thing at Berkeley High. If it made something related to your life, it was always a special feeling — like being on the inside of an inside joke.”

There are plenty of hyper-specific Berkeley High memes, about beloved substitute teachers, notorious hook-up spots, student theater productions, sketchy hallway behavior, class anthems, employees at the Walgreens near campus, and the TED Talk that’s unfailingly shown in every Berkeley High English class.

The Memer’s first post used the “starter pack” format, picturing a collection of items that you’d need to fill a certain role — in this case a girl in the International Baccalaureate program at BHS.

“We just kind of made fun of stereotypes. It wasn’t super groundbreaking humor,” he said. “Since then it’s evolved a little bit. It’s not just a humorous part of the community but a general voice for Berkeley High too. Sometimes we do announcements about walkouts and things that are happening at the school. I don’t know how much of our student population actually reads their email; my little brother learns about stuff through BHS Memes, and we can spread digestible news at the school.”

The Memer has learned the potential, and pitfalls, of having such a prominent platform.

BHS Memes was at its most active during the series of student protests in February over issues around sexual assault and harassment, and how the school and district handled student complaints. The Memer and his fellow memers adopted an activist stance, trying to consolidate disparate lists of student demands to share a unifying message as well as protest details. The Memer and his colleagues can post to the account at will, but when there’s a sensitive topic they get on a video call and come to a consensus, he said. Anyone can submit their own memes to the account too, and during the protests the inbox was filled with requests from people with conflicting agendas asking for attention.

Many Berkeley High staffers are skeptical or critical of the account, which does not shy away from criticizing administrators and joking about teachers. The content is also rarely what you’d call family-friendly.

“BHS Memes undoubtedly showcases the student perspective and that includes poking fun of other teachers, admin, other small schools, or organizations. I don’t relate to that aspect at all,” said history teacher Victor Aguilera, in an email to Berkeleyside.

But Aguilera said he understands the popularity of the account among students, as he himself uses memes in his own class lectures. (Once BHS Memes posted a meme about Aguilera, so he made a meme about the students making that meme, and shared it in class.)

Memes are “fascinating because they can have a simultaneous simplicity and layered complexity to them,” Aguilera said. When he’s made history memes, “I’ve heard students actually explaining the concepts to their peers so that they can get the meme, and as an educator, I find that really cool.”

(Aguilera also emailed Berkeleyside a customized meme in response to our inquiry.)

While schools are closed, the meme account is a virtual gathering place for a group that’s at once larger than someone’s specific circle of friends on Facebook and more insular than a public TikTok account.

“Whenever there’s a post, I feel a redeeming sense of school spirit,” said the Memer. “You feel like you’re part of something.”

As the pandemic got underway, The Memer actually tried to forge even more intimate connections, through a quarantine matchmaking service.

“Love is in the air… or is that a virus?” asked the account. “Coronavirus may have a recovery time of 2-4 weeks (for healthy people) but these memories will last a lifetime.”

That service didn’t exactly have the success rate of your average neighborhood yenta. For one, all the survey questions were jokes.

“I accidentally put two people that were exes together,” The Memer reflected. “Honestly that says something pretty good about my matchmaking skills.” 

With just a couple weeks left before graduation, The Memer and his friends will have to bequeath the Instagram account to some other lucky students, while trying not to blow their own cover at the last minute.

“It’s not a well-kept secret,” admitted The Memer, who himself might have let his role slip at some point. After all, “it’s a pretty big flex.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...