Aaron and the Sea of Stories: What I Learned During Six Years at Westgate

Aaron Epp (’02) spoke at the Bursary Banquet on Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at the Marlborough Hotel.

Don’t say anything stupid.

Oh, sorry, that’s not part of the speech. That’s just a note I’ve written to myself here.

I was asked to speak tonight about the importance of Christian – specifically Anabaptist – education, and the impact it had on me. The first part of the title of this speech is Aaron and the Sea of Stories for a few different reasons.

The first reason is that during my time at Westgate, in an English class I had with James Friesen, we read Salman Rushdie’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun is the Arabic pronunciation of Aaron. So the title’s a nod to my time at Westgate.

But also, I enjoy stories. Telling stories is how we make sense of the world, whether it’s the stories we tell each other or the stories we tell ourselves. I’ve spent the last six years telling stories for a living, so often, I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of stories, trying to make sense of it all.

I’m going to tell you some stories about my time at Westgate. From my stories, I hope you will be able to draw out why an Anabaptist education is important.

Now: If you ask me about math, science, history or language arts, there are only about three things I can easily remember that I learned while attending Westgate from Grades 7 to 12:

The moon does not produce its own light, but rather, it reflects light from the sun.
When you hand in an assignment, it’s a good idea to include a title page.
E.E. Cummings wrote some nice poetry. I can’t recall any of it – not even a title – but trust me, it’s lovely.
You’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘If that’s the only knowledge Aaron walked away from the school with, Westgate has failed him.’ But there are at least three ways Westgate – a Christian school grounded in the Anabaptist tradition – shaped me and helped make me who I am today.

The first thing I learned at Westgate is leadership skills.

For most of my time at Westgate, I was involved with the Student Council and the school’s Peer Support group. I learned lessons that still serve me well today. Some of the things I learned at Westgate were fairly minor, like how to come up with an agenda for a meeting, and how to lead a focused meeting.

But some of the things were definitely more major: How to be a person of integrity; how to actively listen to people when they are presenting an idea or voicing a concern; how to solve conflicts in a respectful manner where all parties involved walk away feeling good about the outcome; how to speak in front of a group of people; how to weigh the pros and cons when making a difficult decision.

If it wasn’t for my time at Westgate, I’m not sure I would have gone on to study at Canadian Mennonite University, where I was in leadership roles like being a residence assistant and president of the student council. I’m not sure I would have gone on to preach on occasion at my church. And I’m not sure I would have been prepared to take on the managing editor role at The Uniter, a role that has led to other career opportunities and was a very big part of my life for the last three-and-a-half years.

The second thing I learned at Westgate is the importance of service.

Westgate wasn’t the first place where I was taught that helping your community is important, but it’s definitely a lesson that was reiterated throughout my six years at the school. One of the two annual fundraisers that students participate in is a Work-a-Thon, where students go out and serve people in a variety of ways, like raking leaves or helping out at an MCC Thrift Shop.

But the importance of service was highlighted in other ways as well. I can still recall the Red River flooding in 1997. Not only did students, teachers and staff sandbag the school, but we also went out into the neighbourhood to help other people build sandbag dikes around their homes.

And I’ll never forget the spring in Grade 10 when one of my teachers announced to the class that he wouldn’t be returning in September because he and his family had accepted a Mennonite Central Committee service assignment in the Middle East. I’d no doubt heard about MCC and its work before that time, but I’m not sure I’d ever known someone who had gone on an MCC assignment before that.

While I haven’t done any overseas work myself, the spirit of service that was championed at Westgate has stayed with me, and greatly influenced the way I approach my work as a writer.

I will now tell you a story from my love life (such as it is).

It’s late last year and I’m on a date with a woman. It’s our second date, so I’m still preoccupied with making a really good impression. This woman is a nurse and she’s telling me about what an average day at the hospital she works at is like. And most of me is actively listening to her, but part of me has this inner-monologue going where I’m telling myself, “Don’t say anything stupid, don’t say anything stupid, don’t say anything stupid…”

So she finishes telling me about the hospital and she says, “Wow, what you and I do for a living is pretty different.”

And because I’m trying to make a good impression, and because I don’t want to say anything stupid – but mostly because it’s the truth – I tell her, “Yes, I suppose our jobs are pretty different. But, they’re both a service.”

Because as much professional satisfaction as I get from seeing my name in print, as much pleasure as I get from writing a really compelling opening sentence, and as proud as I feel when I win an award for my work, ultimately, being a writer isn’t about any of those things. At the end of the day, I want to serve my readers. I want to entertain them, engage them, help them understand the world, spark discussion and maybe even inspire them, too.

So I thank Westgate for instilling the importance of service in me, because it’s informed the way I approach my work. (And it’s also given me something thoughtful to say to beautiful women when I take them out for dinner.)

The third and final thing I learned at Westgate is that Jesus loves me.

Again, I knew this before going to the school. I was taught it at home and I was taught it at church. But still, I appreciated that at Westgate we could talk and learn about who Jesus Christ is and what it means to follow Jesus. Sometimes I forget that there’s nothing I can do to make God love me any more or any less than God already does. I simply have to accept God’s grace, realizing there’s nothing I can do to earn it.

I can’t recall being taught that explicitly at Westgate, but it was meaningful for me to go to a school where talking about your faith was encouraged and where I could learn about the history and teachings of the Mennonite Church.

That God loves us is a story we need to keep telling ourselves over and over again, because sometimes, even if you forget that story for just a little while, you can get lost pretty quickly.

As I was preparing this speech, I flipped through my Grade 12 yearbook. My classmates were an impressive group of people when we graduated together in 2002, and they’re certainly an impressive group of people now.

They include a teacher, a pastor, a lawyer, a health care aide, a psychiatric nurse, a dietician, a counsellor, a veterinarian, a baker, an art gallery curator, a contractor, a Naturopathic doctor, a police officer in Edmonton, a program coordinator at an NGO in Toronto, an actress in Chicago, and a university professor in Los Angeles.

At least five are currently working towards PhDs in fields that include mathematics, Mennonite history, biology, linguistics, and community health sciences.

I know what you’re thinking right now, because it’s the exact same thing I was thinking when I put that list together: Wow, were none of those people available to speak this evening?

I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t want to know.

But anyway: Probably more important than the scholastic and professional accomplishments they boast, many of the people I graduated with are committed Christians who are dedicated to their faith and making the world a better place.

And I’m sure all of them would have awesome things to say about Westgate if you asked them.

I’m going to end with two stories, and these are stories that immediately spring to mind for me when I look back on my time at Westgate.

One of the theatre productions each year at Westgate is the Three One-Act Plays, put on by the junior high students. It was early December, auditions were over, and the plays had been cast. One of the teachers involved was relating to our Grade 12 class how she enjoyed being a part of the plays, but casting the plays was always difficult because, of course, not every student could be chosen for a part. And when you’re in Grade 7 or 8 and you don’t get to be in the school play, it can kind of feel like the end of the world.

The next day, I submitted a short paragraph to the daily announcements that are distributed to each classroom, specifically targeted at the students who didn’t get parts in the one-act plays. I wrote about how I didn’t make it into the plays in Grade 7, but in Grade 9, I had a starring role, and by Grade 12 I was co-president of the student council and pretty much ran the school. In other words, while they might be disappointed now, it didn’t mean cool opportunities wouldn’t present themselves in the future.

A teacher at Westgate sent the announcements home to my parents and circled the paragraph I had written. Christmas was approaching, and he wrote in the margin, “Are you making your list? Are you checking it twice?” He wanted my parents to see what I had done.

I tell this story not to highlight what I did, but rather to point out that the teacher took the time to recognize this small deed that I had done.

The second story takes place in Grade 11 or Grade 12. I’m not sure exactly what the class was called, but it was the Christian studies class for that year. We had to submit reflection papers on a regular basis, and the teacher was taking some time in class to talk about our papers. And this teacher had been so touched by some of the reflection papers that she began to cry in the classroom.

I thought about those two stories a lot as I prepared my speech for today, and for the longest time I couldn’t quite figure out why those two things – the teacher sending the announcements home to my parents, and the other teacher becoming emotional in the classroom – stuck with me.

It hit me a few days ago, though. The reason those two stories stick with me is because they show how much my teachers cared about me and my fellow students.

I’m not saying that teachers at Westgate care more than teachers at public schools or other private schools. But I am saying that the teachers at Westgate care a lot about what they do and they are impacting students’ lives in ways that will stick with them for many years to come.

In recent months I’ve actually been thinking about changing professions, and one thing I’m thinking about is going back to school to get my Bachelor of Education. I don’t know if that plan will work out. But I do know that if I become a teacher and I’m half as good as the teachers I had at Westgate, I’ll be doing pretty good.

Thank you for having me here today – hopefully I didn’t say anything stupid. Have a good evening.