VUHS students present inclusive vision of peace

VERGENNES — An elephant in the room and a moving student speech highlighted Vergennes Union High School’s 11th annual Peace One Day celebration on Monday morning on the school’s soccer field.
The student-organized all-school event honors the United Nations International Day of Peace, which the U.N. in 2001 adopted as Sept. 21 after a grassroots effort organized by filmmaker Jeremy Gilley.
Students here have always focused on what it means to them in the VUHS hallways and classrooms and in their lives as well as what it means on the national and world stages.
Midway through Monday’s event, co-host Julia Johnson and Gay-Straight Alliance speaker Sarah Rathbun brought that point home.
“The first step toward peace is equality and accepting what makes everybody unique,” Johnson said in introducing Rathbun.
Rathbun prompted a standing ovation with her two-and-a-half-minute speech from the podium:
“I’m telling you my story because I hope it will help someone else who has struggled or is struggling with who they are. When people look at me they see a girl who looks like a boy, or just a boy. When I look in the mirror, I see me, or someone who is human. Everyone has their own struggles. You have yours, and I have mine. Many of us are extra-sensitive when we are trying to be more comfortable in our own skin, especially when there are people who call us names, like in my case weirdo, homo, or boy.
“I know me and others that face similar problems must make peace with ourselves. And that means being strong through insults or ridicule. I don’t like stereotypical girl clothes or long hair. I’m getting more comfortable with who I am every day. And the way I dress and how I look is the way I feel comfortable. If I and people like me seem sensitive, maybe it’s because we are working at being at peace with who we are.
“Turn to someone and think about your differences. Realize our differences are what make us the unique people we are. If we were all the same in the world, it would be a pretty boring place. I am the only me, and you are the only you. And accepting our own and each other’s differences is the most peaceful thing all of us can do.”
In opening the festivities, Aaron Gaines explained its roots.
“Starting in 2005, the idea originated by students to have a whole-school Peace One Day awareness celebration after teachers, one of them being Kristine Kirkaldy, showed them a documentary about how one man, Jeremy Gilley, through great perseverance, convinced the United Nations to sanction Sept. 21 as the first day of global ceasefire and non-violence for all 193 member nations,” Gaines said.
Gaines said the button handed out on Monday, designed by 8th-grader Emma Beauchemin, “illustrates this message as a reminder to us every day that taking action for peace saves lives.”
Johnson and co-host Max Ratti-Bicknell asked students to donate to this year’s senior class cause, suicide prevention and awareness. They also said that middle school students had voted to give sale proceeds of the “Peace Pies” VUHS 7th- and 8th-graders bake every year to support refugee camps, and thanked organizers Eric Stolen, Jeffrey Stearns and Hannah Wyman.
Megan Rooney and Aly Gebo then dedicated the event to middle school teacher Deb White for the help she gave to Peace One Day organizers over the years.
•  The VUHS Advanced Art Class unveiled this year’s banner, with a picture of an elephant and the slogan, “Be Part of the Heard.”
•  Five Addison County Fire Cadets — flag bearer Dylan Bougor, Schuyler Coyle, Tyler Shortsleeve, Philip Armell and Tucker Dyke — offered a moment of silence for those who have fallen in service of community and country.
•  Music came from singer Trudy Cosgrove and teacher Chris Wycoff; accordionists Kareena, Megan and Annika Vorsteveld; the trio of singer Emma Gardner, bassist Malcolm Donovan-Cook and cellist Nora Hubbard; and Eli Goldman and a fellow band member. Maddie Smith, Ashley Cray and Caitlin Walsh danced.
•  Gunnar Sonwaldt and Tyler Kepes spoke in both German and English of the importance of learning a second language as a way to create peace; the role of Germany and its soccer clubs and leagues in supporting refugees, with Kepes noting wars have created 60 million refugees since 2014; and the value of the school’s exchange program with a German community.
•  Johnson and Ratti-Bicknell dropped facts about Peace One Day, including that 610 million people are now aware of it and that, because of it, 4.5 million children in areas racked by conflict have been immunized against polio since 2007.
Near the end of the celebration Johnson commented on the life-sized metal sculpture of an Asian elephant standing in the field behind the podium, courtesy of Panton sculptor Eben Markowski, who created “Gravity the Elephant.” Gravity will go on tour to promote awareness of the perilous state of elephants in the wild.
“Have you noticed the elephant in the room?” Johnson said.
Johnson introduced student Sophia Parker to speak about Gravity.
“Peace One Day is all about action, and the international message for this year is ‘Take Action.’ We all have ways we can help, no matter how busy we are,” Parker said. “We can all make a difference.”   
Parker then said one way to make a difference was through art, and she called Markowski and his wife, Heidi Mahoney, to the podium. They in turn introduced Ashley McAvey, who helps operate ivoryfreevermont.org. She is the main contact and the Vermont ambassador for Elephants DC, an organization dedicated to stopping the illegal ivory trade that is threatening the extinction of elephants.
McAvey praised Monday’s student event.
“I am so impressed with this entire day and everybody I’ve heard,” McAvey said.  
She then urged students to consider acting to support a bill to ban the sale of ivory in Vermont, one that has been adopted in three other states, including New Jersey and New York.
More importantly, McAvey said, she suggested they take action on any cause they felt strongly about.
“I did the most important thing I could do in activism. I started,” McAvey said.
Soon afterward the senior class formed a peace sign on the soccer field while the other classes formed the letters P, E, A, C and E.
Before the students left the gentle slope in front of the podium for that spelling test, Johnson asked those who had performed any sort of community service to stand. Almost all realized they had already done something that qualified.
“Look around you, ladies and gentlemen,” Johnson said. “Vergennes Union High School takes action, and I’m proud to be a part of this school.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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