Good afternoon! I am so excited to launch this first all school meeting with a few words of greeting. I am Dr. Jennifer Zaccara, 18th head of Vermont Academy, founded in 1876. We are actually around the corner from celebrating our 150th anniversary – in 2026. This year, you will contribute to our story – your story of learning and growing will become a part of the fabric of this special place.
Hundreds of years ago, this land, and all of what is now Saxtons River and Bellows Falls, was part of the Abenaki nation that stretched across northern New England, Western New York and Canada. Bellows Falls, just 15 minutes from us, has the Connecticut River streaming through it down to Brattleboro. Three thousand years ago, the Abenaki would canoe down the river from Canada to Bellow Falls for an annual festival and sacred time of prayer. Since there is a meeting of rivers here – the Saxtons River, the West River, and so many others, flowing into the Connecticut as part of Basin 11. It is important to note that because of Abenaki tradition, our location is also of great significance. Bellows Falls, just a few minutes from campus, was a place for shaman and spiritual transcendence and connection, and a place for sending off the Abenaki spirits into the afterlife. The Connecticut River descends 3700 feet from Stratton to Brattleboro, and through Bellows Falls, the Great Falls, or Ktsipôntekw, its Abenaki name, it descended 52 feet before there were canals and other diversions of the original falls.
In Bellows Falls and Brattleboro you can see ancient petroglyphs, etchings in the rock that depict faces, and these thousands of years old images send a message to us about a culture that can educate us a great deal about the land on which we stand. The whole idea of land and ownership is so radically different between the European settlers and the First Nation peoples. Not only did the rivers meet in Bellows Falls, but also the cultures of two radically different world views converged and often at great cost.
In the 18th-20th centuries, farms and mills developed here, originating with the European settlers and also after the founding of the United States. Our school was founded on a field of wild strawberries on a hilltop above Saxtons River in 1876. One is tempted to say “Strawberry Fields Forever” along with “Go VA!”
I would like to suggest that we celebrate learning during this, and really every year, and celebrate the individuality of that process. Each of you will bring your own personal histories and ways of knowing and being to a collective equation we call community.
Consider learning as faculty and students as it will come to you from three wonderful resources:
First, I invite you to “Learn from the Land:”
Learn to read the messages that the land teaches us about how living things interact and are interdependent. We have an eco- system here, and it is fascinating to see it in action – from the beavers to the barred owls. Learn to read the land and the stars, to find your way, and your individual path.
Next, “Learn from your teachers and coaches:”
Your teachers and coaches, like you, learn every day, and we are here to study, work and learn together. I invite you to embrace the learning opportunities set before you each day and to bring some of your own discoveries to share with others in the classroom, in the forest, on the fields.
Finally, “Learn from each other:”
Some of you may know Sabin award winner, Joe Perry, the talented guitarist of Aerosmith. He is an alumnus of our school, and I remember reading in one of his interviews that he learned all about some of the great music of the 60s from his fellow peers.
In an interview in 2014, Joe shared that, "After vacations, guys would come back with bits and pieces of different cultures," Perry said. His Vermont Academy classmates came from New York City, Los Angeles and cities all over the world to Saxtons River, bringing the latest counterculture icon with them, whether an underground newspaper like the Village Voice or an underground album like the debut from The Velvet Underground (taken from the interview).
"It was a real education for me and not the kind of learning they (his parents) sent me there for," according to Perry. "I was meeting different people. It just opened my eyes to what I knew I wasn't getting in Hopedale as far as social things and what was going on in society."
Joe is just one of our many talented graduates, whom I invite you to learn more about, beginning with the Sabin award honorary wall and the recipients’ biographies hanging on the first floor of Fuller Hall.
Learn from the land, learn from coaches and teachers, and learn from each other. The voices of the past are alive if we can just hear them, and they tell us the fascinating, sometimes complex but interconnected stories of this special place.
Let’s have a great year! Go VA!