If you’ve ever found yourself shuffling through the dish return line amidst the post-12 o’clock lunch rush—AKA the great exeunt of Commons—you’ve probably entertained yourself by reading the fresh and quirky “Napkin Board” along the wall.

Cheryl Lacey, head of dining operations at the college, sat down to talk with The Bates Student about the job of the elusive Napkin Board Correspondent who writes the creative responses.

The esteemed position of Napkin Board Correspondent is a privilege exclusive to seniors. “We limit it to seniors to begin with because we feel that seniors have had the opportunity to get to know Commons intimately. They also have had three years of checking out other responses to napkins on the board,” Lacey explained.

Lacey looks for someone with wit and creativity in their responses. All candidates submit a short writing sample to showcase their sense of humor. One of the more memorable submissions was a student’s screenplay set in Commons.

With the growing popularity of memes, some students also submit some original meme work to show they’ve got what it takes for the job.
The first step in the Napkin Board process comes from the students themselves. Commons eaters are welcome to pin their questions, comments, original artwork, inspirations to the bulletin board in Commons.

“I love the napkins that will REALLY get out there,” Lacey said. She went on to give an example of a student who had a really elaborate theory about the Illuminati and its presence on Bates campus and how it related to the food being served. “It was two napkins long. Somebody really took the time to craft that,” she said.

Among the many napkins each year, there is usually one napkin in which someone makes a case for something they want in Commons, to which they then add, “Clayton Spencer wants it too.” Cheryl laughs, “I’ve had conversations with Clayton Spencer…”
If you’ve been waiting on the edge of your wooden Commons chair all week, waiting for the declarative napkin that will signal a yes or no to your avocado request, don’t bother keeping your eye on the comings and goings of napkin-wall dwellers. You’ll never see the Napkin Correspondent at the wall.

“The thing here is that the Napkin Board Correspondent is guaranteed complete anonymity,” and there is an art form to this,” Lacey explained. Lacey takes down the students’ napkin requests on a Monday and scribbles a general guideline for the senior: “yes” or “no.” This collection is put into an envelope and pinned somewhere secret in Commons for the incognito writer, who knows the rendezvous location and can covertly collect the napkins. The respondent then emails Lacey (usually by Wednesday) with a first draft response.

At this point in her explanation, Lacey pointed out, “You’ve probably figured out there’s a little bit of poetic license the student is allowed to take while responding to the napkins.”

Lacey continued to explain that the writer has complete agency over responses and only rarely does she need to step in and suggest that perhaps a line is being crossed in a response. “There’s a certain amount of snarkiness that students anticipate in the responses, and that’s fine!” she said.

After getting the OK from Lacey, the envelope is returned back to the rendezvous point with the sticky note/meme responses ready to go. Lacey collects these and pins them up Friday morning.

“Nobody sees them pinning up or taking down a napkin. That way nobody knows who the napkin board respondent is. The anonymity gives them extra creative freedom,” she added. “I constantly get asked who the Napkin Board Respondent is, but I never reveal.”

The Commons Napkin Board is a longstanding tradition that’s been here long before Cheryl Lacey began running Commons dining over twenty years ago. No one knows exactly how it started: “I think someone just pinned a napkin up one day and they just kept coming,” Lacey said. It’s been a lighthearted and fun way to communicate requests and compliments to our lovely dining facility and highlights the comfortable and interactive atmosphere of Commons.

For interested seniors, feel free to email questions about the application process to clacey@bates.edu. The job “Napkin Board Correspondent” is posted on Handshake under Dining. Cheryl’s advice? “Give us your best in your creative writing sample.”