VUHS rally stresses activism

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School senior Ben Parsons said something unusual happened this past Wednesday, Sept. 21.
“The students in my morning meeting don’t stop talking for very long,” Parsons said. “They stopped talking while they watched the video.”
Most of the VUHS morning meetings viewed the five-minute film that Wednesday as a prelude to the school’s sixth annual celebration of the United Nations Peace Day on the VUHS front lawn. In 2001, UN delegates unanimously voted to make every Sept. 21 Peace Day, which is intended to be an annual cease-fire for international conflicts and a call for long-term solutions.
RETIRED DIPLOMAT AND Middlebury resident George Jaeger speaks at the Vergennes Union High School Peace One Day rally last Wednesday.
Photo by Kristine Kirkaldy
The UN adopted Peace Day at the urging of filmmaker and activist Jeremy Gilley, who also produced the short video VUHS students watched last week.
In it, Gilley — who founded the Peace One Day organization in 1999 — documents the success of a Sept. 21 cease-fire in Afghanistan. Allied forces and the Taliban agreed to lay down arms, a one-day drop of 70 percent in violence was recorded, and health workers vaccinated hundreds of thousands of children.
In the video Gilley also calls for an effort to spark an even wider ceasefire on Sept. 21, 2012. He asks the people of the world to sign up and lobby their leaders to create “a reduction of hostilities on a scale we’ve never seen before,” one that will be “a sign for future generations” that peace is possible.
“If you become involved, they will follow,” Gilley concludes. “But they won’t do it, if we won’t do it.”
And, said Parsons, getting students to act was a central goal for the student organizers of this year’s VUHS Peace One Day events.
“The biggest thing we wanted to work on this year was making it centered around involvement,” Parsons said. “We wanted to be sure that kids knew this was a real U.N.-sanctioned event … All these 130-something countries celebrate it, and last year 650,000 were helped with these aid efforts on the 21st.”
Getting each morning meeting’s community service representative to show the video on the Peace One Day website (, the link is on the left) was a key part of that plan. Most morning meeting teachers took advantage of the opportunity, organizers said.
Lee Shorey, one of the VUHS faculty members who have supported the student organizers over the years, noted the website also offers those who view the film or simply log on to the site the chance to sign the truce and pledge their support.
Many students did so during their morning meetings or later that morning outside during the Peace One Day celebration. Shorey said 300 in all signed.
“Students were informed enough to want to sign the truce, and when they came out to Peace One Day, they had a better comprehension of the day,” said Shorey, who cited Michelle Chamberlain, Kristine Kirkaldy, Steve Orzech, Glenn Storey, Judy Wiger and Chris Wyckoff as other involved faculty members.
Student organizers — Peace One Day committee members included Parsons, Casey Brinkman, Grace Chamberlain, Clara Childers, Jack DeVos, Brianna Kelly, Mary Langworthy and Kristin Pike — also invited New Haven resident George Jaeger to speak.
Jaeger, an experienced diplomat who, among many other assignments served as staff director of the President’s Advisory Commission on Arms Control and Disarmament and as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO, also urged students to do the hard work of creating peace.
Parsons said Jaeger called it “donkey work.”
“He said you can never tackle peace as a one-sided, black-and-white issue,” Parsons said. “You have to go to work every day. You have to talk to people. You have to talk to so many people. You have to just round out the rough edges a little bit at a time. And when you finally get people to congregate and discuss and understand each other, that’s when things happen.”
Students also invited Abdirahman Gaandi, the executive director of Burlington’s United Somali Community Council Inc., to speak at an optional indoor assembly after the morning outdoor event concluded with the request for all to sign the annual Peace One Day banner (most signed).
Gaandi described the often-horrific conditions in his native land, where families live in desperately poor conditions, and a suicide bomber killed a dozen students in his hometown at a graduation ceremony, students who had somehow scrambled to pay for an education.
“He said, this is what you need to understand: There are people living in paper cardboard houses, and he showed it,” Parsons said.
Afterward, Shorey said VUHS students were discussing ways to fund the $50 needed to keep Somali pupils in school for six years.
During the outside rally, students spoke on the podium set up in front of VUHS, and they and teachers performed music next to it.
Following Jaeger were members of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, who urged tolerance and understanding.
“This is about respecting every individual for who they are. This is about choosing to affect the people around you positively,” said Michael Danyow. “That, my friends, is peace.”
Music included the VUHS chorus, accompanied by Wyckoff; songs by middle school student Julia Johnson, accompanied by middle school teacher Sean Nary; and the school’s world drumming class.
Speakers included John Duke, Laine Gingras, Kelsey Coleman, Bethany Anderson, Lane Kessler, Michelle Mitchell, Alyka Vanderwey, Hannah Mailloux, Kyra Duggento, Brinkman, Childers, Dustin Booska-Moulton, Isaac Bicknell, Alex Crowel and Chelsea Fuller.
Gingras echoed the day’s theme.
“One man, one woman, one teacher, one student, one father, one mother, one child, one person. Change starts with one simple thought, one act of kindness, one helping hand,” Gingras said.
Mitchell’s uncle died on Sept. 11, 2001, in the attack on the World Trade Center.
“In honor of my uncle and all who died, work toward peace,” Mitchell said.
The gathering also took time to honor those 40 Vermonters who have died in service of our country in Iraq and Afghanistan, including five National Guard members based in Vergennes. Forty flags were set around the flagpole in front of VUHS; the school’s drivers’ ed teacher, Sandy Chicoine, placed the final flag there on Wednesday morning in remembrance of her nephew, one of the 40.
Middle-school students baked 50 pies, which were sold and raised $400. Half of that will go toward Tropical Storm Irene relief in Vermont, the other half toward a water project in Kenya.
Shorey also pointed to increasing community connections. Burlington’s Peace and Justice Center showed up, and will run Parsons’ speech in its newsletter. Its representatives also discussed funding VUHS students’ participation in a UN conference. And a member of Middlebury’s Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society came, and then invited Brinkman to speak that evening at their Peace One Day even, where Jaeger also spoke.
There is no question, Shorey believes, that Peace One Day has not only become a tradition at VUHS, but is poised to grow even further.
“The administration supports it. The community has now hooked onto it,” she said. “It’s sort of like this day wraps up all we feel we’re trying to do at this school.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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