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Keeping quiet for a good cause

John ColsonAspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
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ASPEN At lunchtime Thursday at Aspen High School, teachers reported an eerie atmosphere of quiet in the commons area, while in some classrooms, students watched movies and videos, or read from books. Over at Aspen Middle School, where only seventh-graders were keeping quiet, the din that usually washes outward from the lunchroom was noticeably diminished.That’s because students at both schools on the Maroon Creek Road campus took a vow of silence to raise money for the Free the Children organization, which works to relieve suffering in Africa.Students wore lanyards with signs proclaiming their vow, and some got a little more creative, such as one middle school girl whose sign proclaimed, “Dude, I’m Quiet Today.”The Vow of Silence was the brainchild of the Action in Africa club at Aspen High School, which also recently showed the internationally acclaimed documentary “Invisible Children,” about the estimated 50,000 children abducted every year and forced to fight in rebel armies in Uganda and other countries.

The club’s sponsor, social studies teacher Lance Finkbeiner, could only write responses to questions from a reporter because he took the vow as well. But he wrote that the high school raised $9,000, all of which will be sent to “Free the Children” and will at least partly benefit construction of a school in Kenya that is seen as critical to keeping children out of the hands of the militias. The amount of money raised at the middle school was not available by late Thursday afternoon.The effort the students put forward impressed teachers and administrators in both schools.”I think it’s just a real commitment on the part of the kids,” said Paula Canning, middle school principal. “It’s hard to go a full day and not talk.”High school Principal Charlie Anastas, showing equal pride in the kids, conceded that his happiness over the event was the result in no small part of the fact that the noise levels had dropped for the day.”Lunchtime seemed a little quieter than it normally does,” he said with a smile. “It’s fun. It’s neat to see kids working toward a cause.”

As for the teachers and kids who participated, well, they didn’t necessarily have a lot to say. But a couple of teachers and students agreed to write out their feelings.”Bewildered, at first,” wrote seventh-grade teacher Brian Hightower, describing the student reaction to the idea at the middle school. “They really had no concept of the plight of a large population of children in Africa. … They watched a shortened version of “Invisible Children” and were pretty shocked.”So most, if not all of the seventh grade climbed on board, to the point where Hightower reported that “in class, no one has spoken today.”Among the younger participants, the difficulties were predictable.”The vow of silence is very difficult,” wrote student Sloan Stryker. “I know it’s for a very good cause. After seeing the movie, ‘Invisible Children,’ I was very touched and wanted to do everything I could. The important thing about the vow of silence is, you have a lot of time to think about what’s going on.”

Nate Hanson, another seventh-grader, said the most difficult thing about the event is “when you are forced to talk because someone asks you a question, and when you answer, people all say you’re not following your vow.”Hightower confirmed that there were “attempts at subversion” by some rowdy students, but those interviewed said most students took the situation seriously.”I think they’re very proud that they’re standing for a cause,” said AHS teacher Sarah Benson. “They seem to be actually really into it. They’ve been really, really good about maintaining their pledge.”Junior Haley Kaufman, founder of Action in Africa, has been to the region the film highlighted and wrote, “The whole idea of being silent for the day is not just to raise the money … but to raise awareness of the children who want a voice in this world but are not given the opportunity to have one. By being silent for the day, we are giving these children the voice they deserve.”John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com


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