This Christmas – share the dream

Posted on: November 28th, 2017

You may know that Rockway opened its doors in 1945. But you may not know the remarkable stories of our early alumni and the challenges they overcame to follow their dreams at Rockway. In Rockway’s fall appeal, Ferne Burkhardt, Class of 1954, shares her story with you. Read and be inspired this Holiday season.

It was Labour Day, 1949. I was fourteen. Soapy water sloshed over the grimy clothes as I worked the hand-powered washing machine outside the summer kitchen door. My words spilled out with sad resignation. “Tomorrow school begins and I guess, I won’t be going.” At the time, in my social and church community, formal education stopped at the end of grade eight.

“I guess you can go,” responded my mother. I had no words. Was I dreaming? My three older siblings had quit school at age fourteen to work on our farm or as farmhands or a maid somewhere else. How could I be so lucky to go to high school? I had dreamed of going to Rockway since the school was launched a few years earlier with my uncle as principal. However, I would be heading to a public school. Rockway was far away and my family had no money for tuition.

Always hanging over me was the sense that this year could be my last as a student. And two years later, my fear was realized. I longed to go back, and my dreams of going to Rockway were still alive, but I resigned myself to the reality that it could not happen.

By November, fall work on the farm was done and at age 16 I started a job as a live-in maid at a home in the city. In May, it was back to work on the farm. I loved the peace and pastoral nature of the country, but farm life was not for me. If only I could go back to school I would have more options for the future.

Soon September was around the corner and once again students were heading back to school. I would not be among them. But then another miracle happened, as unexpectedly as the first time. My mother said I could go to Rockway Mennonite Collegiate! I was stunned. All these years later, how that happened is still a mystery. Where did my family find the tuition?

Paying to live in the dorm was out of the question as was a daily commute from home. But there was another option. With my experience, I could work for room and board as a live-in maid within walking distance of the school. The school’s matron made the arrangements.

Walking into the converted barn that first morning felt like coming home. I knew I belonged. Worship in chapel clinched the sense that these were my people. I already had some friends there and I made new ones beyond my Mennonite circle. These friendships remain strong more than six decades later.

My two years as a Rockway student were rich and rewarding. Realized dreams was the subject of my valedictory speech.

My story is not unique. Many families make sacrifices to send their children to Rockway, as my husband and I did for our three children. I remain grateful that Rockway, with the support of family, friends and churches, was there for my children, helping to shape the dreams and values on which they have built their lives to serve God and humankind.

Since that first graduating class in 1948, Rockway alumni and its dedicated faculty and staff have contributed much to our community, the church and the world, and continue to do so. For many years, I have found ways to give back to Rockway. Working on the alumni newsletter and arts festivals, serving on various committees and the board, and occasionally assisting with promotional and fund raising efforts, have allowed me to help make dreams come true for other young people.

All these years later, Ferne continues to volunteer and donate, and to share the dream of a Rockway education.

This Christmas, consider sharing the dream with your gift to Rockway Mennonite Collegiate.