Wilton High School's Festival of Languages celebrates culture

Wilton High School was the scene for an abundance of culture at the annual Festival of Languages. The three-day event is the effort of students and teachers who have been working since October to prepare.

“Last year, I approached my Spanish teacher and said, ‘I think the festival could do with a little more student feedback,’” said David Gumins, a senior and chairman of the committee. “Little did I know that that would turn into a student-led committee.”

“They’ve given us a lot free rein to run all of the events,” said Kate Bell, a junior. “All of the events are student-run. Each student knows what’s going on.”

The idea of the festival, David added, “was to engage students through culture, and get them to participate.”

This is not purely a collection of foreign languages though. A visitor could just as easily walk into a presentation called “Mental Illness: Global and Local Initiatives.” Led by Isabel Zayas and the LETS group (standing for Let’s End the Stigma), an audience watched as a video presentation played, followed by a question-and-answer session.

“Probably most everyone in this room has known someone with a mental illness,” Isabel said.

Moving through the halls of Wilton High School, David explained, “We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible. We tried to make the week not as much about language but about community.”

“We said, ‘Look, give us all of your clubs and we’ll give you a shot.’ It gives them part of ownership of the week and it gives them the chance to spread their message.”

In the Zellner Gallery, handmade masks were on display, representing ancient Peruvian masks. Students learned how to make the masks with members of the high school’s Spanish honor society.

“We tried to involve the entire community,” David said.

“When David graduates, this all falls onto me,” added Kate, who will return for her senior year in the fall.

A day earlier, David said, more than 600 students turned out for Ginga Brasileira, a professional ensemble performing a colorful repertoire of Afro-Brazilian dances.

Poems and origami helped keep the day light, while a presentation called Hero Rats in Mozambique brought out a more serious topic. Presented by student James Pettit, the session highlighted the efforts to find and remove land mines in the southeastern African country.

Another session, called Child Slavery: A Global Crisis, was held by the Amnesty International Club. This served as an opportunity for students to learn how to help out.

Later in the festival, the high school would see other events, such as crafts from Germany and France, merengue and Zumba sessions, and Operation Smile, which helps send doctors around the world to correct cleft palates for children and adults.

“There are a lot of logistics that go on,” said David, referring to keeping the Festival of Languages organized.

Fellow senior Sahib Sawhney stood with a mask on, joining Kate and David to pose for a picture just outside the Clune Center. Afterward, the three spoke about what they wanted students to get out of the festival.

“Learning about different cultures and visiting different places they might be able to visit themselves,” said Kate.

“More than just learning, I want them to experience it,” added David. “The goal was to immerse them in culture, more than they can typically get in the classroom. Instead of someone just standing there giving a PowerPoint and lecturing, I want them to feel engaged. I want them to feel empowered. I want them to feel like they’re a part of that culture.”

“If kids just see something happening, they’re just going to zone out,” Sahib said. “But if they actually have hands-on experience, they get something out of it. I’ve learned so many things about different cultures.”