VUHS students take a stand for peace and justice

VERGENNES — With words, art, song and dance, Vergennes Union High School students on the afternoon of Sept. 21 made impassioned pleas for peace, justice and acceptance for all people around the world, in the nation and in the halls of their school.
The occasion was the 14th annual VUHS all-school Peace One Day assembly to honor the United Nations International Day of Peace. The event, normally held outside on school grounds, was moved into the VUHS gym due to rain.
Students invited to speak by their peers in the Peace One Day Committee were introduced in the gym by student emcees Siobhan Eagan and Leah Croke.
“Peace One Day is about coming together and celebrating, celebrating all the good in the world and all the good that is yet to come,” Eagan and Croke told the assembly. They closed with words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Student speakers touched on the theme of the day, “Embrace Diversity,” including by asking listeners to understand what all people have in common and decrying racism, sexism and homophobia.
Junior Alder Donovan-Cook took a holistic view. He said that the greatest achievements of humanity have come from its use of our brains, and that our “remarkable ability to communicate and work together to accomplish great things” separates us from other species.
Now, he said, it is time to stand together.
“We rely on one another to meet both our physical and mental needs. The greatest weapon we can wield is an unconditional love for your fellow man, the most stalwart shield an unyielding compassion. We have always been greatest when we have stood united in a devotion to a greater humanity. So love your companions, your coworkers, your accomplices in the grand design of your life. Always remember that we were never meant to stand alone,” he said.
Sophomore Lexi Montgomery (pictured, right) dealt with an issue more specific to her African-American heritage in a series of 14 questions and one conclusion. 
Included in her questions were:
•  “Have you ever been told you can’t dance with someone because it will make their parents tremble with disgust?”
•  “Have you ever wanted people to be color-blind?”
•  “Have you ever been called something so foul that it makes your heart ache, makes the whole world go silent, and you realize how alone you are?”
•  “Have you ever wanted to be in someone else’s skin to see how they are treated on a daily basis compared to you?”
Montgomery concluded, “Long years I’ve waited for this so-called word ‘equality.’ I’ve waited for everyone to realize the color of skin, sexuality, religion, shouldn’t matter. Making the world a better place is what matters … Help the word equality thrive.”
EXPENSIVE REALITY, A band made up mostly of elementary school students, plays at the beginning of the Peace One Day rally last Friday afternoon.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Senior Sepehr Belar, a native of Iran, spoke at his third and final Peace One Day assembly and focused on peace as justice:
“I am sad that this year is my last year here in VUHS. But, do you know what makes me even more sad? What makes me even more sad is injustice. Injustice in society. Injustice in politics. Injustice in the education system. Injustice in the justice system. Injustice because of race or gender.”
Belar urged his peers to act against injustice in the U.S., while acknowledging the situation is worse in his homeland and elsewhere.
“If we fix injustices, then America would be even greater. And it is our job — our job, yours and mine — to make America better, because we are the future of America. Each of us has a part to play,” he said.
VUHS middle school paraeducator and high school running and track coach Brad Castillo spoke in honor of recently deceased VUHS alum and former soccer coach Mike Plankey. Castillo, a member of one of Plankey’s Commodore soccer teams and a family friend, invited Plankey’s sons to be the first to sign the annual Peace One Day banner designed by the VUHS Advanced Art class.
According to a statement from the class, “The message to spread love and understanding is more important than ever in this day and time.” The class, “chose to paint two hands of different races holding paper cranes; the symbol of hope and healing that are tied to their fingers. Those cranes are releasing pedals into a bigger bouquet made up of six different flowers that symbolize peace in some way.”
Peace-themed music came from VUHS students Kai Williams, Marin Howell, Sydney Tarte, Caitlin Walsh, Jaime Portugal-Dunne, Hannah Philbrook and Una Fonte; teacher Chris Wyckoff; the Mount Abraham a cappella singers; the Brooks family; the Vergennes Union Elementary School band; and the VUHS band and chorus. Students Ashley Cray, Maddy Smith and Walsh presented a dance performance.
The VUHS middle school sold pies for $2 per slice to support the event, T-shirts with a new design that included the Embrace Diversity theme went for $10 for the same purpose, and a Ben & Jerry’s truck sold ice cream at a bargain rate of $1 to mark the occasion. According to organizers the day raised almost $1,000, and they will meet soon to decide what cause or causes to support with those funds.
The assembly’s final speaker was senior Sam Rathbun, once known as Sarah. Rathbun spoke about how the VUHS community supported his transition and how that fit into the day’s theme of embracing diversity. 
“Since coming out as trans, I have been met with the utmost support and acceptance from my fellow classmates and the people in this school,” Rathbun said. “People that have known me for years as Sarah when asked to address me as Sam automatically greeted me with love and understanding. My appreciation for all who have supported me through this journey exceeds what I can express today but I wanted to say from the bottom of my heart, thank you. I have found peace and love for myself through all of you.”
Rathbun summed up what Peace One Day meant to many assembled at the VUHS gym.
“Everyone has the right to peace. It doesn’t matter what skin color you have, what gender you are or aren’t, your name, where you come from, who you love. We all have a right to peace. We as a community, the united and strong community that we are, have the power to show the utmost love and compassion for one another,” he said.
“Being a good human being starts with loving people for their differences, loving people for what they contribute into our beautiful world. Every single person brings something new, unique, and important to this community and the world itself.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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