Every autumn, on an evening around dusk, a luminary-lit path appears on campus. Dozens of students gather for inspiration in their social justice work. They celebrate peace. Planned and executed by the students, this Peace Vigil includes readings, performances, art installations and demonstrations.
The idea for this came years before from Karen, a sophomore student, who wanted to make a difference on our campus. She had joined the newly formed diversity and social justice club, but was concerned that some students perceived the club to be a divisive place. She wanted to create an event that would educate ad bring the community together.
I thought this was a brilliant idea—so often, my response to an act of hatred or prejudice is to reflect and then create. Sometimes, I throw myself into my writing or find the perfect piece of literature to start a class discussion. Karen’s idea was just such a reflective and creative act.
Karen spent a year working with student clubs, faculty, and administration to plan the first Peace Vigil. She crafted an opening presentation using Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” to get the attendants in a reflective mindset. Everyone received a program filled with thought-provoking and inspirational quotations, poems and reflections. Then the participants were encouraged to walk the candlelit path through campus.
Every few yards, participants would discover a new installation on this reflective journey. The science club created a presentation about recycling, student artists filled the walkway with inspirational chalk art. A young woman sang “The Sound of Silence,” and members of the Holocaust class spoke about genocide. The international club demonstrated yoga. A local librarian spoke about the dangers of illiteracy, and the anti-substance use student group created an interactive experience to highlight the dangers of substance abuse.
At the end of the journey, the path opened up onto a cleared space where all could gather, share their reflections and create an intention banner—a banner filled with the promises and commitments participants made at the end of the evening. That first year, Karen asked me to end the evening by sharing a favorite passage from Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks:
“You’ve seen fisherman mending the rips in their nets. That’s what I do, only with people. I used to try to patch up the whole world… Not that I’ve given up the fight. I’ve just switched battlefields, from the entire planet to this corner of Cleveland… Sewing up the rips in the neighborhood.”
Every year, the Vigil changes. Different songs are chosen. Different issues are raised. Different clubs get involved. Different take-aways, those physical symbols of the commitment to peace, are created. But certain things are constant—the luminary-lit path; the gathering of students, teachers, parents, and community members; the students’ desire to make a meaningful impact on their world and shape their community in some lasting way.
That’s really what Karen created six years ago, when she proposed the Peace Vigil. She created a place where student voices could be heard and could make an impact in the world.
Elliott is a high school English teacher in Texas.