Sydney Benjamin is a Finalist for the Calvin Prize and will be honored at our New York Gala on November 6th.
A Voice from the Burning Mountains
Every autumn, my world catches fire. The trees burn a million shades of red and gold; fall in Vermont brings me a sense of clarity. The air reaches a temperature of utter perfection, school has not yet weighed my back down beyond repair, and, on those beautiful days when I can taste winter coming on my tongue, but the sun is still shining bright in the sky, I feel as though I could stretch out my arms and fly. As I watch the geese begin their migrations, I question whether I, too, should leave this place of wonder.
Calvin Coolidge left his home state to further his career, a move which ultimately won him the United States Presidency. But he, too, saw the beauty that lives in Vermont’s hills when ablaze. “I love Vermont because of her…scenery and her invigorating climate,” Coolidge wrote. “But most of all because of her people.”
Her people. The people of Vermont are unique. There is a certain pride that comes with the phrase “Vermonter.” We have inside jokes, five seasons: summer, fall, winter, spring, and mud, a ratio of cows to people that boggles the mind. But we also have a hardiness and hospitality that is growing ever rarer in our rushing world. We heat our homes with wood stoves, take pride in our farmer’s markets, and rave about local entrepreneurs who push the boundaries of what is possible. Vermonters are resilient. Just as we survive each winter, so we can survive every disaster life throws our way. During a visit to the state to observe damage done by the flood of 1927, Coolidge gave his famous speech Vermont is a State I Love. He was awed by the “splendid recovery” that had already occurred and by the “race of pioneers” who had done all the work. A few years ago, when our state was rocked by yet another great flood, I saw the same as I wandered through the streets of Montpelier. I wondered at the smiles on people’s faces, at the laughter that could be heard coming from the sale tents as local businesses scrambled to save themselves from bankruptcy. Much was lost in that flood: houses, merchandise, more than a few roads. But Vermonters are strong; they carry on. They understand that their ability to survive is determined by their ability to come together in times of need. Coolidge understood this. “If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.” Vermont’s sprit is strong, it makes itself known, and it isn’t going anywhere.
There are things that draw me away from Vermont, just as there were things that pulled on Coolidge to leave. As most Vermonters are well aware, not much happens in Vermont. It is difficult to notice the tiny northeastern state that most people think is a part of Canada. Urban life is nonexistent. Connections are hard to make. The community of Vermont is so close-knit because there aren’t very many people here; everyone knows everyone else because there aren’t that many people to know. It is difficult to obtain a worldly perspective on life. I do want to travel. I need to get out of Vermont, to see different places of the world and to meet different people. I need to experience the parts of life that Vermont simply cannot offer.
My biggest worry is simple: will I be able to make a difference from this tiny corner of the world? Can my voice be heard?
The difference between Coolidge and myself is that I believe the answer is ‘yes.’
Vermont is home. Vermont is the place where I feel safe, where I feel sure of my identity. I am too much an introvert to crave the bustle of a city, and I love my trees too much to ever give up their beautiful blaze, year after year.
My identity forms my voice, and it it my voice that I want to use to shape my world. Coolidge believed that he had to leave home to strengthen his voice. I believe there is a power that lies in speaking from home, from what I know, from what is true to me. The future of Vermont will be determined by the voices and words that people of my generation choose to use. The words they will argue with, the words they will love with, and the words they deem important enough to put into law. Words have power, as Coolidge learned in his years as a lawyer and as a politician. I want my words to touch people across Vermont, across the nation, across the world.
I draw strength from our race of pioneers, and inspiration from the trees that define our beautiful state. Vermont is more that a place on a map; it is a way of life, one that has shaped me and influenced my voice. I will show the rest of the world that people from Vermont have something more. More respect, more perseverance, more determination. We come from a special place, one that I know I will always return to. Our winters bury us in snow, our mud is feet deep, our cows are endless, and our autumns set the hills on fire.