Kindness is a Gift
Rage Hezekiah, First-year and International Student Counselor, was the staff speaker at Convocation 2019. She shared her perspective as a relative newcomer to Vermont and the inspiration she finds in her daily work with students. She also urged the community to "be gentle with each other."
"I trust our collective ability to have hard conversations, and find common ground," said Hezekiah. "This doesn’t mean we always have to agree, but that we can treat each other with tenderness, trusting that we are committed to sharing this space, and making this place our collective home."
Good morning. As a newer member of this community, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak, and for the ways Bennington College continues to welcome me.
Last June when I came to Bennington for an interview, I remember meandering up the drive for the first time. I was struck by the tranquility of the space, and how expansive it felt.
My own path to Bennington was a meandering one. I attended a small liberal arts college in New Jersey where I majored in Women’s and Gender Studies and minored in Spanish. While there I took self-defense courses that melded theory and practice, I took Arabic and life drawing classes. I was the only black girl in my a cappella group, participated in dance and theatre productions, and was involved in activism on and off campus. After college, I moved across the country on a whim to work on organic farm in California. I co-owned a lovely and dysfunctional collective bakery, and helped women through labor as a doula. Then I got a graduate degree in poetry, taught college writing, advocated for college students with accessibility needs, and landed here in hopes that I can help support international students and first year students as you make Bennington your home.
I’ve had the privilege of reading many of the application essays, and poured over some of the portfolios of the incoming class. Your stories and your ability to translate your experiences into meaningful work is beautiful to witness.
In my daily work with students, I’m inspired to hear about your explorations at Bennington, and the unexpected leaps your work is taking. I’m also honored to be trusted to hold the space for you when things are hard.
I see Bennington students as people who are willing to speak up, ask questions, and hold each other accountable. I also see how hard you work to hold faculty and staff accountable as well. We need this.
As much as I may feel like my college graduation was not so long ago, I know that my college experience was really different from yours. When I took my first gender studies course in college, I can remember how thrilled I was to start to learn about gender equality and identify myself as a feminist. Many of you are likely already on your own journeys as activists and advocates. You have a level of awareness and a language to describe your identities and experiences I didn’t have during my college years. I’m grateful to have the privilege to learn alongside you. I know I’m not alone in this room when I say I am always still learning. I am a cis-woman and I sometimes get people’s pronouns wrong. Too often I forget my cis-gender, ableist, and class privilege. As a queer woman of color I know that it is not the role of marginalized folks to teach others how to treat them, and I will also say, we need your help. I trust that Bennington is committed to creating a campus culture in which we all thrive, and hold each other accountable.
I want to urge you to be gentle with each other as well.
I trust our collective ability to have hard conversations, and find common ground. This doesn’t mean we always have to agree, but that we can treat each other with tenderness, trusting that we are committed to sharing this space, and making this place our collective home. That gentleness, that interconnectedness, is what makes Bennington so special. Bennington is a place that leans into the liminal space of both/and. I’m honored to be a member of this community.
Everyday I’m continuing to learn about the broader community of Bennington, Vermont, and how to make my home in this part of the country. As a queer woman of color, people are often surprised to hear that I live in rural Vermont. A year ago when my wife and I drove out to look at apartments, my car battery died at a gas station off of route 9. It was just before nightfall, and the gas station was closing, and the only man there had a pick up truck with a confederate flag emblem across the back. I swallowed hard, aware that he was the only person around who might be able to help us. And sure enough, he pulled jumper cables out of his truck, and asked me to pop my hood. Despite my assumptions about him, he was kind, and helpful, and did his tender best to jump my car. Unfortunately he didn’t appear to really know how to use jumper cables (and don’t tell anyone but neither do I) and eventually he drove away leaving us stranded. Luckily, a couple of women on a road trip from the midwest stopped to get gas shortly after. They had a battery pack and jumper cables in their car, and they were very excited to use them. They got the battery running, we all high fived, we snapped a selfie together.
I tell this story in part because it’s crucial that we give each other the benefit of the doubt. When I think about what has made it possible for me to make this part of the country my home, it’s my willingness to believe that we are each doing our best, and that kindness is one of the most important gifts we can give to each other.
Earlier this year, my wife and I bought a house nearby. We had just moved in, and while our kitchen floor was a sea of cardboard boxes, we got a knock on our door. Our new neighbors, whom we’d never met, climbed our winding, dirt driveway, to bring us a pie. Maybe this is normal country behavior-- I did move here from Boston where people are known for being particularly surly--but for me, I was blown away by this act of kindness. They came into our kitchen and talked about how long they had been in the neighborhood and told us we’d love living there. They brought us a pie from Apple Barn, gave us their phone numbers, and emails, and told us to reach out if we needed anything.
When I think about making my home here, these are the experiences that stand out. I think about watching the fireflies in Jennings Meadow, and the Hooded Mergansers (which are very cool birds) on the pond, and seeing the sunset over the winter landscape at the end of the world. I think about being welcomed into the poetry community at Bennington, and feeling seen and supported as a working writer even though my day-to-day work at Bennington is separate from my writing. I think about the bold and brilliant Bennington students, faculty, and staff, who I have the privilege of learning and laughing with every day. If you hear a belly laugh tear through the first floor of the barn, it’s probably me.
I want to close with words from Toni Morrison, may she rest in power. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Thank you so much.