This I Believe: The Power of the First Word

Hannah Cunningham speaking at Poetry Out Loud. (Photo/Steffen Parker)

Hannah Cunningham speaking at Poetry Out Loud. (Photo/Steffen Parker)

Hannah Cunningham, Editor-In-Chief

I was comfortable. I lived in the same house my entire life, followed my older sister through the same schools, and met the same friends on the corner of Cliff and Summit every day. My life through high school was planned, and the way forward, clear. Even COVID, a drastic period of hardship and change, did not throw me off my track.

Change in my world meant small adjustments to a solid structure. Fourth grade, when my childhood neighbor announced her move to Craftsbury, was the first time I experienced a significant shift. That afternoon I climbed to the top of my treehouse and cried.

I was not spoiled but fortunate. I was not clueless about the world but inexperienced.

September 9th, 2020, that all changed. In the span of thirty-six hours, my high school shut down and I transferred to a private school, uprooting my meticulously planned future. I walked into Rice that day while my Burlington High School friends expected to see my face appear on Zoom classes. Although only separated by four miles, Rice and BHS felt continents apart. I walked robotically from class to class, my head falling lower each hour that passed without a peer greeting me. By the end of the school day, I had only talked to teachers. I felt drained and unwanted at a school that from the outside appeared so welcoming.

I continued on, trudging out to the fields, unenthusiastic about participating in field hockey tryouts, delayed because of my school switch. Then I noticed their smiles. Two seniors ran up to me eagerly introducing themselves and the team. From that moment forward I did not spend a moment of practice alone. My new senior friends walked me through drills, bonded with me during water breaks, and checked in, ensuring I had a ride home.

I mattered.

Those seniors may not remember that Friday afternoon, but I always will. Field hockey practice became the part of the day I looked forward to and kept me afloat through the months it took to form other bonds with classmates. Those girls taught me to believe in the power of a smile, a simple “hi”, and a welcoming spirit.

I shifted the way I approached both new and shy classmates. Although previously always kind, I now understood the relief of a single opening word, the invitation to a conversation. Paralleling the seniors’ actions, I began filling the silence for others, became a student ambassador, and greeted faces in the hallway.

Be the first to say hello. Be the first to smile and inquire about someone’s day. In this I believe: the power of speaking the first word.