Submitted by: Diana Blackstone-Helt
My story starts with misery. I was miserable at public junior high. I don’t believe public schools are inherently bad. I don’t even believe the public school where I felt so miserable was a bad school. It just wasn’t a good fit for me. As an undersized introvert, the number students was intimidating and the environment rough. I remember several fights in the halls, sometimes involving weapons like knives and even chains. A crowd of students gathered around to watch, chanting “Fight, fight!” until a staff member showed up to put an end to it. I also struggled to find a healthy friend group. My two best friends often put me in the middle of their arguments or turned on me inexplicably on occasion. I didn’t know the right things to say or even to wear. With all the normal changes a young teenager goes through, the transition from my safe little country elementary school to this junior high was traumatic, and my parents didn’t like how it affected me. At the end of 8th grade, when they asked if I’d like to attend Western Mennonite for high school, I did not hesitate.
I didn’t know much about Western Mennonite, even though I grew up attending Salem Mennonite Church. I’d been there to watch my cousins perform in plays and musicals, but that was my only exposure. The first day of school, I watched amazed as students greeted each other so warmly with huge hugs, even the boys. The only affectionate moments I’d seen at my public school were couples kissing in the stairwell, so friends hugging was actually a new, unfamiliar concept. I moved into the dorm after Christmas, and in no time at all, new friends were hugging me and loving me, despite my faults. I found a family there, an acceptance, a community I love to this day. Through Bible classes, chapels, and informal conversations with my teachers and friends, I also truly learned what it meant to be a Christ follower.
Five years after graduating, I was asked to come teach English at Western, and I accepted. As a teacher, I’ve found the same loving community year after year. Western has been through many changes since that time, but one thing that has been consistent is the love of this community and its commitment to nurturing a love for Jesus. It’s heartwarming to see the love and active care the students have for each other. The faculty and staff care for the students more than they know, and I’ve felt my students’ love and support in return. I’ve felt blessed that I’ve been able to send both of my sons to Western. The oldest was well-prepared to go on and excel in college and is now enjoying success in his career. My youngest is a freshman and is very happy at Western, enjoying opportunities he would not have at our public school.
My husband admits that when he wrote tuition checks each month for the boys (before we received the tuition benefit we get now), he resented it. I already wasn’t paid well as a teacher there, and now we were giving money he thought that the school should be paying me! He didn’t understand why Western is so important to me and why the boys couldn’t just go to our excellent local public schools for free. But then every time he came on campus to watch a soccer game or a Christmas concert or a spring musical , he witnessed the love of the community and the opportunities a small school allowed for our sons and thought, “Oh, I get it. This is why I write those checks. It is worth it.”