Reliving Lighting (Memories of a UMEI Student)

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This blog is written in honour of the 2012-2013 graduating class from United Mennonite Educational Institute.  GO LIGHTNING!!!

High school was a time of anger, sadness, and loneliness, yet also a time of joy, wonderful surprises, and great friendships.  As many other teenagers will relate, I hated high school when I was going through grades 9-12.  It’s not so much that I hated my high school per say, but I hated having acne, being preoccupied with what others thought of me every single second of every day, and the awkwardness that one faces during the prom and on one’s first date.

I didn’t like high school because it was all about popularity, trying to prove yourself, competition, and having everyone think they are the center of attention (while at the same time thinking you are the center of attention).  Yep, such is the life of most 15, 16, and 17 year olds.

Looking back, though, I am eternally grateful for my 4 years at United Mennonite Educational Institute (UMEI).  Do I think that I learned more there than if I went to a public high school?  Now, that’s a hard question.  I don’t think I did learn more theoretically than any other high school would offer me (except possibly in science and music because we had amazing programs for those).  Yet, did I learn more about life at UMEI than I would have at the public school?  I am guessing I did.  Had it not been for UMEI, I would not have become a Mennonite, much less started thinking about being a Mennonite pastor.  UMEI introduced me to my church which in turn introduced me to our conference (Mennonite Church Eastern Canada) which in turn introduced me to pastoral ministry in the Mennonite world.  It was at UMEI that the seeds of pacifism grew deep within my soul and today (I would venture to say) are almost impossible to pluck out.

UMEI wasn’t just about the classes that I went to.  You can take math, English, and phys ed at any school that you go to.  Any teacher worth their grain in salt can teach a good history or geography lesson.  Yet, how many people can honestly say that the harp was played for them during music class, that they were instructed to take choir very seriously, that 4-part harmony became an important way to worship, or that they blew up pumpkins on Halloween in the name of science?  See, these are things that aren’t as common in any other school other than UMEI.

UMEI also taught students to make a difference.  In a culture that screams to put ourselves first and to achieve greatness at any cost, UMEI taught us that we have to step back and learn and practice downward mobility.  Through service projects, the MCC Meat Canner, expecting us to put in more volunteer hours than other schools, our Mennonite Disaster Service trip to New Orleans, and making us each lead chapels once a year, we became part of the local and global reality – not just the reality of our own selves.  We put on school wide plays that forced us to learn team work and to bond with our class.  We went on trips to camp, Montreal, Ottawa, and Chicago to experience the world outside the classroom.  Every summer we would head up to the national park in order to gain a better appreciation for nature.

High school was at once wonderful and terrible.  Wonderful because I still remember going to Stratford to see Shakespeare plays, hanging out and having parties with my best friends, and loving it when the Omas came and surprised us with homemade Zweibach and Rollkucken.  Terrible because just like any other high school, UMEI was not perfect.  There were students who were not rooted in themselves and struggling.  We faced the same problems as many other high school students did – all the temptations for drugs, sex, and alcohol were no less prevalent in us than in any other 16 year old.  I think the difference is that when we were tempted, we had places and people to turn to.  Our youth pastors would come and each lunch with us and would allow us to eat lunch at the church if we ever needed time out or time away.  Sometimes they would meet with us one-on-one, other times, they realized we just needed a quiet place to rest during the lunch period.  Our teachers would approach us with concerns and questions and help us to figure out our life.  So, did we struggle?  We sure did.  But did we know what to do if we wanted our struggles to subside?  We sure did.

Like every other former high school student, I sometimes do look back at the not so wonderful experiences I had.  High school wasn’t easy when I went through it, and I am not particularly interested in reliving that time again now.  Yet, I think the mark of a good school is that 4 years after the student has graduated they can look back and honestly say, “I am different because of this institution and I love this school for what it is.  It has a place in my heart.”

Had it not been for UMEI, I don’t know what kind of grounding I would have entered Tyndale with.  Certainly, I would have had less Biblical knowledge, but who knows what else?  I’m sure I could have taken other skills with me had I gone to any other school, but it would not have been quite the same.

Often I listen to my peers tell me that they don’t keep in touch with a single person from high school now that they have been out of high school for 3 or 4 or 5 years or whatever.  They feel they don’t have anything in common with them anymore and that their lives had gone in two very different directions.  I hear the once popular kids say all the time that the friendships they made were rather shallow.  That high school romantic relationships don’t stay together because they lack depth.  Well, my high school was small.  We only had 68 students when I was in grade nine and by grade 12 that number was down to 56 [I don’t think this is a reflection of the school per say.  Almost all high schools in Ontario are seeing decreased numbers in students because people are having fewer children nowadays].

In some ways, we were “forced” to be friends with whoever happened to be around at the time – we didn’t get a choice like we did in university when there were hundreds or thousands of students and we could easily find others who we related better to and had much in common with.  For sure, the friendships I made at Tyndale are deeply rooted and I feel like I have known them my entire life.  Yet, maybe in a way, not getting such a choice or variety was better for us.  We had no choice but to learn to interact with others.  Did we have cliques?  What high school doesn’t?  I think it is wrong to say that UMEI is not a typical high school with typical high school experiences.  But, are the “popular” kids still friends?  Most of them are.  Personally, I wasn’t the most popular kid, but I did have a fairly big “posse” made up of various ages of students.  I always find it strange that kids in grade 12 don’t want to hang out with anyone younger than grade 11 because at UMEI that simply was not an option.  I had friends in my grade, but also friends who had already graduated, and friends who were just starting out.  Do I keep in touch with every one of them now?  No, I do not.  But I still hang out with several of them, and I still care about all of them.  I might not call them every night, but I’m interested in what they are doing with their lives and catch up with them on Facebook.  When I’m going through difficult times, I’m more likely to talk to them first and any other friend second.  I’ve seen my friends grow and mature, but we have not lost contact.  If anything, our friendship has deepened as we have grown spiritually together.  In many ways, I think that’s why our friendships have stayed together.  If all we cared about was getting drunk together, the excitement of that would have diminished long ago.  Instead, we now can enjoy ourselves over a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant or a game of bowling, but also praying with each other, talking about the Lord, and discussing Theology.  I don’t know many others who can claim those types of friendships with former high school classmates.  Oh yes, and several of my friends are now married or engaged to their high school sweetheart.

Today, I sit here thinking of the 2012-2013 graduating class at UMEI.  They have faced times of pressure, heartache, loneliness, and maybe even depression.  Hopefully, they have also faced times of laughter, fun, and significant interpersonal and spiritual growth.  Some of them may walk that stage wishing they would have gone to the public high school.  Others of them will walk it content and confident in their decision to attend and stay at UMEI.  For all of them, I wish that 4 years from now regardless of if they are working, in school, or volunteering, they will be able to look back at their experience and be eternally grateful for their 4 years at UMEI – for the friends they have made, the lessons they have learned, and the pumpkins they have destroyed.  I know I can.  GO LIGHTNING!!!

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