By ROLAND FLEMING
For most of us, the idea that everyone should aspire to finish their high school education is a given, but for many in the Mennonite community this is not the case.
Some have grown up in more strict Mennonite backgrounds in which a high school education was not encouraged or in many cases was actively discouraged. Many Mennonites are pressured to begin working full-time directly after Grade 8.
Without a high school education the options for work are limited and most will end up working in various Mennonite manufacturing shops or on the farm. Some who find themselves dissatisfied with their limited options for work, have come to regret their lack of education.
Is it ever too late to go back to school and get an education? Dave and Eva Fehr, a married couple from Elmira, Ont. who come from a Mexican Mennonite background, don’t think so.
Eva, 44, and her husband Dave, 50, have decided that now is the time to complete their high school education.
The couple have chosen a more modern lifestyle than their parents. They live in a house in Elmira, Ont., where they have raised all of their six children. They have decided that they do not want to separate from the world in the way their more traditional ancestors have.
Today more Mennonites are choosing to pursue their high school education, but when Dave and Eva were growing up it was very uncommon.
“It was almost unheard of. Very few people, especially from the old colony Mennonites, would go further than public school,” said Eva.
Mennonites of more traditional sects tend to avoid education for a number of reasons.
“They don’t believe their kids should be educated … they want to keep themselves separate from what they would call the world,” said Eva.
While culture and tradition plays a part in why many Mennonites don’t seek higher education, another major reason may have to do with finances.
“Why a lot of Mennonites don’t do more schooling, is because they want their kids working as soon as they can,” said Dave.
In many Mennonite families unmarried children living in the house are required to give their entire income to their parents. They are provided for and may be given a small allowance, but any money they make is not their own. In some families that amount changes to 50 per cent when they get older, but until they are married they will be giving all or at least half their income to the parents.
By not sending their kids to high school, the parents stand to profit from the many extra years of labour before marriage.
“One of my family members said to us once, ‘You’re going to let your kids go to school when you could be making thousands and thousands of dollars a year?’” said Eva.
The couple have decided to break from these traditions and don’t ask their kids to give up their incomes and are also actively encouraging their children to pursue higher education to work toward their dreams. As they encourage their children, they are also pursuing their own goals, and each has reasons for why they have decided to complete high school.
Eva, who has worked as a deep muscle massage therapist for most of her life, knows that her hands will eventually not be able to handle the work and wants to be prepared for when that happens.
“If I want to do anything beyond that, I need education and I can’t take any courses unless I have my high school. I see the value in education now, because our kids have finished high school and I see the value in that,” she said.
“One dream would be to become a midwife,” she added.
Of their six children, three have finished high school, and the rest they believe will also graduate. Their son is looking at doing a mechanic apprenticeship and one of their daughters is thinking about becoming a teacher.
“At the beginning, when our kids were in that stage, I was kind of against it, because I still had my old mentality … I think it’s not an option now for them not to go, it’s the minimum,” said Dave.
Dave, who recently quit after working in a Mennonite metal bending shop for more than two decades, now really sees the value in education.
“For myself, it is because sometimes to get a good job you are required to get high school and your pay might even be better … I’m not young anymore but there’s a possibility I could go do other courses yet, because of the high school.”
Eva and Dave aren’t just doing it by themselves though. Through their local church they are leading a group with two other younger people who would like to finish high school as well. They will be going through a process called Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) and at the end, the goal will be for each of them to obtain their high school diplomas.
Eva and Dave have some advice for those who might be thinking about not finishing school.
“I say yes, it’s going to be hard. But don’t quit. Don’t give up. For myself … I have regrets now. So if you don’t do high school then you’ll have regrets later, you can save yourself that,” Dave said.
“If you do it now while you’re still in school and finish, it’s so much easier. If you wait until you’re my age it’s like whatever you learned before, you’ve forgotten. So the learning is twice as hard. So hang in there, it will be worth it in the end,” Eva said.