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Keeping Up the Pressure: Thetford Students Join March for Our Lives in Montpelier

  • From left, Andrew Swazy, stands with his children Margo Swazy, 7, and Lincoln Swazy, 5, all of Charleston, Vt., while joining hands with Kathleen Hoyne, of Cabot, Vt., and Robert Macrae, of Fairlee, Vt., during the March for our Lives in Montpelier, Vt., on March 24, 2018. Thousands of people showed to listen to students, poets and professionals talk about gun violence. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thousands of people gather for the March for our Lives at the steps of the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on March 24, 2018. There were a total of fifteen speakers ranging from students, poets and professionals. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thetford Academy senior Ella Farrell listens to a speaker during the March for our Lives in Montpelier, Vt., on March 24, 2018. Farrell was joined by a group of classmates who both volunteered and attended the event. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Signs cover the window of Salaam in Montpelier, Vt., on March 24, 2018. Several signs were posted on the walls of nearly every building on State Street. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A person walks their dogs towards the steps of the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on March 24, 2018. The national March for our Lives attracted thousands of people to Montpelier to talk about gun violence. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2018

Montpelier Vt. — Directly after track practice, and just before dressing up for the James Bond-themed semi-formal dance at Thetford Academy, a quartet of students took on a Friday afternoon project they wouldn’t have dreamed of 18 months ago: making political protest signs.

To avoid messing up the house, they made them, laughing in the freezing cold, with cardboard scavenged out of a parent’s garage and acrylic paint “borrowed” from the school’s art room. The signs bore slogans like “Show some chutzpah, make a change,” and “Now I’m really pissed off.”

The four were among many newly politicized Upper Valley teens who, after joining an estimated one million students in walking out of their classrooms earlier this month, marched in Montpelier on Saturday afternoon in the hopes that their angst over the deadly Parkland school shooting can translate into tougher gun control laws.

School officials throughout the Upper Valley, like principals Garon Smail of Woodstock, Nelson Fogg of Hartford, and Justin Campbell of Hanover, said they had heard of students busily making plans to attend.

One Academy student who attended was Asher Graber, 18, of Thetford. Graber is a self-described introvert — the type of person who said they wouldn’t have felt comfortable dancing just anywhere on the dance floor during the semi-formal.

Instead, to ease the awkwardness, “my friends and I make a small group and huddle,” Graber said.

And on Saturday afternoon, after donning neon vests that identified them as volunteers for “March for Our Lives” organizers, the Thetford students were treating the Capitol steps like the dance floor — in the midst of a teeming crowd, they were insular, chatting easily with each other and referencing their phone from time to time.

In the hours before the Montpelier event began, the students — Graber; Emma Bauer, 18, of Strafford; Grady Curtis, 18, of Lyme; Evan Koppers, 17, of Post Mills; and Ella Farrell-Starr, 18, of Thetford — spent a few minutes unstacking towers of chairs, and then were assigned to watch over the seats to make sure they were kept available for people of limited mobility.

All around them, the front lawn of the statehouse was bustling with pre-protest activities. Organizers with cups of coffee from the local co-op erected folding tables and covered them in cheap plastic yellow tablecloths, planning to fill them with literature from Gun Sense Vermont, while Montpelier police shut down a portion of State Street and topped parking meters in front of the statehouse with plastic bags with “no parking” printed on them.

For Bauer, political career aspirations have supplanted her former dream of becoming a scientist, and the event is an exercise in Newton’s third law of motion — that for every action, like, say, the election of Donald Trump to the White House, there will be an equal and opposite reaction, in this case a highly energized group of activists determined to lurch the country as far back to the political left as possible.

Bauer and Graber were among Thetford Academy students who went to the Women’s March on Washington D.C. in early 2017.

“The energy of the march is what prompted my change,” Bauer said. Instead of seeking out funny posts or YouTube videos, she began using social media to learn more about politics, and connect with others who were doing the same.

“Even my Netflix bingeing time has been taking up by writing testimonies,” she said. “Now, all the time when I talk to my friends, it’s about this. It’s about what we’re going to be doing next.”

She was taking an interest in a broad range of progressive political issues, but the February Parkland shooting suddenly put gun control front and center.

“These are kids like me. … I’m a national merit scholar finalist,” she said. “But there was another girl, who died, who was also a national merit scholar finalist. And I got to open my letter but she didn’t.”

The national student walkout was pointedly student-initiated and student-led, but Bauer said that she and other teen organizers are interested in building coalitions.

“Some adults participated in the walkout but it was mostly students,” she said. “Now this is showing, in addition to all the children that were affected, these are their parents. Their teachers. Their grandparents. These are all the community members that believe in this.”

As Bauer spoke, the once-tiny knot of organizers near the top of the statehouse steps were slowly being surrounded by waves of eager protesters, like pearls coalescing around a fierce bit of grit.

A large group from Saint Michael’s College arrived in a column-like formation, drawing cheers and whoops of support, and others, arriving in smaller groups, held signs identifying themselves as parts of a particular group: “Grammas for safe schools,” “Mothers against school violence,” and “Jews against guns.”

Graber’s own interest in politics followed a similar trajectory to Bauer’s. Taking part in Saturday’s march was an effort to become part of a group that is large enough, and powerful enough, to achieve legislative action.

“I just want to show the government that kids who are overlooked can do stuff,” Graber said. “And we can change things. And not sit around and let our government destroy the future for us.”

As the political speeches got underway at the podium, the crowd quieted, even though it was getting larger by the minute, thronging the walkway of the Statehouse and spilling out onto the street— police estimated 2,500 attendees in total, part of the hundreds of thousands who held similar events across the country.

Bauer, holding a sign advocating chutzpah for change, took a step away from the small nucleus of her Thetford Academy friends, and into the larger crowd.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.