Journey - Chapter 3
High School Years at Kingsway
BY JERRY MCKAY
As with my childhood, themes characterize my high school years. The things I did as part of my spiritual discipline at home continued and evolved. My orientation was always present; and, like before, there were many times when it forced itself into my awareness in ways I could not ignore. In high school, naturally, the expectation to date increased; and I tried.
To this part of my story, I have added a new dimension. I contacted a friend from high school and asked him to share his observations of me during that time.
When I was in grade twelve, Kelvin and I became roommates. We were so through the end of high school and on into college. He was a year younger than I was. Kelvin learned of my orientation years after we had gone our separate ways. I value his observations because they give external credibility to my very private inner reality. I have woven his observations into my story where appropriate.
Once my application to Kingsway was accepted, I received the school handbook. I read it from cover to cover. The expectations were typical of a Christian boarding school and covered topics like dress, music and entertainment, academic commitment, and social behavior. While they might have been a bit intimidating or repressive for some, I thought they were reasonable.
Unlike previous summers when I bemoaned the approach of the next school year, I was eager for the summer of 1971 to end.
I was not the only teenager from our church to be heading off to Oshawa that fall, but this was our year to do so. Like those that had gone before us, we were honored for our decision.
One Saturday evening in mid-August, after good fellowship and a feast of summer corn boiled over a fire in a church member’s back yard, Barbara and I received the official off-to-Kingsway gift—an alarm clock. I felt privileged to be among a long line of such recipients.
Several days before classes were to begin, mom and I drove to Oshawa with the car full of things I thought I would need for the year. I was fifteen.
I laugh now when I think about the day I arrived. I had some colorful and coordinating shirts and pants in my suitcase, but the day we drove onto campus I was wearing a brand new light brown shirt and a pair of dark brown pants. Anticipating a world of modesty and moderation, I wanted to dress appropriately conservative.
The first week was challenging. Once mom left, I was on my own. Everything was new—the campus, the dormitory, the cafeteria, the routine.
I was temporarily assigned the largest room on the top floor of the dormitory that first night. Unlike most two-occupant rooms, that one could have accommodated four people. From my twin bed in one corner, the room seemed cavernous.
Later that first evening when I tried to sleep, there was a lot of noise in the hall. It was the last week before school was to begin, so it was natural for the residents to be a bit rowdy. Because I knew no one, the noise and laughter only increased my sense of loneliness, and I felt some panic about my decision to leave home. I felt more alone that night than if I had been walking by myself on my uncle’s 500-acre farm. I pulled the mattress off my twin bed and moved it into the walk-in closet. I felt better in that small quiet space.
The School Band
The first person I met was Les. I remember chatting with him around a ping pong table in a dormitory lounge. He had been working on campus all summer, and so he was able to show me around. We soon learned we would be classmates. I was disappointed to learn, however, that he was about to head off for a Labor Day weekend retreat. Everyone who had worked on campus throughout the summer was eligible to go. Obviously, I was not. Waiting for Les and others to return made that first weekend very long.
Once the school year got underway, I settled in quickly. In many ways, my next four years at Kingsway were identical. They were a blur of work and study six days a week with worship and fellowship one day a week.
Adventist schools have always had a work-study philosophy. To accommodate such a program, grade nine and eleven students, for example, might work from 7 a.m. to noon while the grade ten and twelve students went to class. In the afternoon, the whole process was reversed.
My first job was at the school woodworking factory. I worked hard stacking lumber that had to be cut to specification, glued, and baked, and then planed before being made into furniture. Except for a few slivers and tired feet from standing for hours, it was clear that I could manage hard physical labor, my orientation notwithstanding.
There was little about the public high school back home that compared with classes at Kingsway. I was in awe over being able to get credit toward my high school diploma by taking classes dedicated to the study of the Bible. That prayer was offered by a teacher or classmate before a math or science class amazed me. I put a lot of effort into my studies and my grades improved each year.
In addition to the required high school courses, I joined the band as an elective credit and tried to learn to play the trombone. It was not my instrument of choice because I was intimidated by the fact that you “slid” into each note rather than pushed a precise key, but the band director said they needed trombone players and that I had trombone lips.
Even at Kingsway, there was one class I disliked—physical education. I was never comfortable playing sports, especially team sports. They made me very self-conscious. At the best of times, I was not that comfortable in my own body, but when the teacher said my team was to be “the skins” for that period—those who were to play shirtless—I wanted to crawl into a hole.
The biggest change was living in a dormitory.
The early 70s was part of the disco age, and even though it was a Christian school hints of that era were everywhere. Lava lamps were in, and the music of that decade could be heard playing softly in the rooms of seniors—they were allowed to have radios. Long hair was in style, but our hair could be no longer than the bottom of our earlobes. After all, we could not reflect the world too precisely. Some guys were constantly trying to push that boundary. I obeyed, of course.With long hair came the hair drier for men. Previously, the hair dryer had been the domain of women and the beauty salon, but not in the 70s. On Sabbath mornings, especially, before heading off to church, the men’s dormitory vibrated with the sound of those dryers, and you could barely breathe for the smell of Brut cologne. And, yes, I had a hairdryer. And yes, I spent my fair share of time grooming accordingly. Even though our polyester shirts, plaid cuffed pants, and platform shoes were generally modest, Sonny and Cher, or more accurately, the gang from
The Mod Squad could have walked across campus and barely been noticed. In retrospect, it was a great time to be living in the dorm.
Saying I liked dorm life is an understatement. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt like a large extended family. Roommates were like brothers and the deans, though responsible for many, were surrogate fathers. Being in the shadow of multicultural Toronto, the dorm reflected that reality. My first roommate, in fact, was Filipino. Overnight my Anglo-Saxon world had vanished.
Above and beyond the everyday events that made life enjoyable, it was the spiritual focus at Kingsway that was so meaningful to me.
My Spiritual Life
Going to Kingsway meant being exposed to the grander aspects of Adventism. The headquarters of the Adventist Church in Canada was across the street from the campus church, and just a few steps further down the street were the offices for the church in Ontario. There was a steady stream of important visitors and special speakers. I was a bit starstruck by it all. At this epicenter of Adventism in Canada, I felt as if I were at the gates of heaven, or at least, at the foot of Jacob's ladder.
Naturally, a Christian boarding school is a spiritual center. Not every student wanted to be there, and some cared little about matters of faith, but that was not my case. You get out of an experience what you put into it, and I put my heart into every opportunity for spiritual growth. I quickly found a circle of friends who were interested in making Jesus the center of their lives.
Dorm life also included a spiritual focus. We were required to attend morning and evening worship. That was no hardship for me; I thrived on it. In addition, friends and I created our own prayer and Bible study groups that met before classes started or later in the evening.
Sabbath was the high point of every week. Everything that could be shut down was shut down on Friday afternoon so everyone could prepare for Sabbath. By sunset Friday, the dorms were at their cleanest, and the cafeteria served a special menu.
Vespers, at church, was simple and ushered in each Sabbath. After vesper, those students with guitars would lead an informal fellowship where we sang the contemporary Christian songs of the day. One of those songs was For Those Tears I Died (Come to the Water) by Marsha Stevens. That song, in particular, would have great significance to me a few years later. Those evening circles of singing, sharing, and prayer were matched in intimacy only with our Sabbath-morning prayer breakfasts.
Only the were up and out of bed by 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning in order to gather around a campfire, even in winter, for a breakfast of fruit, cinnamon rolls, and chocolate milk. Around those fires we sang, shared, and prayed together, again.
Compared to my tiny church back home, the church service at Kingsway was a spectacular event. There were hundreds of members compared to our 30. Our old upright piano and four-pedal two-console electric organ were eclipsed by a grand piano and a pipe organ, and the school choir was amazing.
After church, if you were fortunate, a family in the community would invite you over for some home cooking. In the afternoon, those who wanted to could join Sunshine Bands—our student ministry for the elderly—and tour a local nursing home to visit with and sing for the residents. Others just relaxed in their rooms.
The end of Sabbath was met with mixed emotion. Although Sabbath had been a time of rest, worship, and fellowship, the close of Sabbath meant it was time to pick up all the work and worries of the week. On the other hand, sunset meant the secular entertainment could begin. You never wanted to seem too eager for that, however!
As I mentioned previously, in addition to those scheduled religious events, I had my own spiritual practice. I was not the only one with personal devotional habits, so I don’t mention this out of pride. Rather, I want to emphasize that despite my spiritual life my orientation persisted, even intensified. The first did not diminish the latter—to my dismay.
I continued the habit I had started as a pre-teen of reading the gospels in conjuncion with Ellen G. White’s book The Desire of Ages. This was not a hand-on-the-door-knob-with-a-prayer-on-my-lips reflection before I tore off into my day. I literally tried to put into practice White’s suggestion of spending “a thoughtful hour each day in the contemplation of the life of Christ.”
As often as I could, usually very early in the morning when it was still quiet, I found a secluded place to read and meditate. Sometimes it was in my room. Other times it was some other quiet corner of the dorm.
I’m not a speed reader at the best of times, and when it comes to reading spiritual material as part of my devotional life, I’m even slower. I reflect on words and ideas slowly, methodically, and intentionally.
Because The Desire of Ages is 800 pages and designed to facilitate reflection on the life of Jesus, it often took me more than a year to work through it. I used each chapter to walk with Jesus, visualizing his interacting with the people he encountered. I tried to enter deeply into what I thought He would want me to know about the Father and how those things should impact my interaction with others. During high school and on into college, I meditateed and prayed my way through The Desire of Ages together with the gospels seven times.
I enjoyed that practice very much, and an hour was often too short. To this day, I get frustrated when life limits the time available for that kind of reflection.
Prayer, too, was always a pleasant experience for me. I had lists for family and relatives, classmates, and friends that I systematically cycled through month after month. Most of my prayer time, in fact, was spent praying for others. Any list I had for personal needs was short and simple. I never had a shortage of things to talk to God about.
Any time I did spend praying about my attractions was like inner ponderings focused on those plaguing “why” questions. That my attractions persisted was always a puzzle to me, because during high school and on into college, I was as spiritually focused and intentional about my faith as it was possible for me to be. Despite everything I did spiritually to develop my faith, my orientation persisted. This was very distressing and went against everything I believed should happen to a believer.