A small Martin Luther King Jr. postcard hangs on the wall of Shelley Vermilya’s office in the U-32 English hallway:
“I choose love. Hate is too big a burden to bear”.
The whole room, small as it is, is decorated with color and purpose- quotes, poems, and posters depicting activists and messages of social justice. On one wall, a well-stocked bookshelf is decorated with a small rainbow flag.
Vermilya is U-32’s new equity scholar in residence.
What does that mean? “We’re asking too,” Vermilya said. “ We’re making this road by walking. We’re inventing this as we’re going, because I believe consciousness-raising doesn’t happen in a one-shot deal.”
Vermilya aims to help make U-32 a safer environment for all students, and encourage students and teachers to respectfully discuss and learn about issues such as race, sexuality, and gender identity. The role is flexible and can take many forms- she could work with students for a discussion in class, or support individual students working on social justice topics. She brings many years of experience with her, having taught gender studies and multicultural studies at multiple Vermont colleges.
Self-education has long been a part of Vermilya’s path. She grew up in the 1960s in Newark, Delaware, on the line between the South and North. Her father was a “gentleman racist” – displaying a common, casual bigotry that was socially accepted at the time- and her mother was a women’s rights activist. Constantly exposed to two completely separate mindsets, Vermilya became aware of social issues from an early age- in a way her hometown wasn’t.
She felt lost in school, not finding any interest in sports or theatre and struggling to conform to social norms. She found herself instead in the ‘hippie’ culture of the time as one of the first students in her school to wear bell bottoms, and she grew her hair long. She went to anti-war protests and poetry readings, and got involved with civil rights as much as she could.
“I was really in trouble as a high school student,” Vermilya recounted, “ I didn’t have a place. I think my best friends were books, because I could find a whole lot about what was happening in books that wasn’t happening in my neighborhood.”
She actively sought out books by black writers and other writers of color, trying to get as clear a picture as possible of the world beyond her own narrow-minded town.
One look at the bookshelf in her office can tell you that Vermilya’s relationship with literature hasn’t changed. Though she is a practiced scholar, she believes her learning is never done. “I’m not an expert. I don’t know all angles and all sides of everything,” she says, “but I am so curious.”