SPOTLIGHT – Shawn by Tom Kernaghan

pastedGraphic.pngI listen intently, the phone hot against my cheekbone, as he revisits key details of his fascinating and nomadic life. Shawn is clearly a man who has lived and learned through some tribulations I have not. Beneath the fluidity of his words lies a calm confidence produced by years of fortifying fights and realized visions.

Growing up with traditional learning challenges, Shawn crashed against the limiting and stigmatizing mold of mainstream education. He was a teenage father. He has travelled the world in search of opportunities. And he has spent years challenging the conventional thinking of a school system for which I, by mere chance, was fairly well suited. Seemingly, we come from different worlds. And yet I can sense a fundamental connection — something in his intention. His voice compels me to find it.

“We are all storytellers. The problem is, most of us aren’t very good at it. The school system encourages and rewards only one way of learning, and it prepares us for a workplace devoid of individuality and full of vacuous clichés. We have lost our way in the world. Stories bring the human being back into focus and help us remember what is important. By expressing our true selves, we connect with others and inspire each other to act toward unifying goals — whether team building, convincing your kids cooperate, wooing a date, or building a more respectful and responsible society. But there is a structure to consistently good and persuasive storytelling.”

And Shawn has a list of accomplishments to prove it. After dropping out of school, he  married his grade 9 sweetheart and began a life that harnessed his natural energy and talents: He started more than 20 new ventures; became an Associate Professor of Business in the Faculty of Management at Royal Roads University; co-founded a private college in Alberta with his brother; and created and taught university programs in business, entrepreneurship, and tourism. Today he works with Indigenous youth groups across the country and leads Campfire Storytelling Workshops via Zoom and in person at the Rotary Centre, to teach the structure of effective storytelling to organizations and individuals. 

“Everyone ‘goes up.’ When I hold our workshops, I give everyone a chance to get up and tell us a story. Throughout history, most of our storytelling has been oral, told around campfires of all kinds. In our gatherings you get thrown into the fun, and in the thrill of the moment, you have to find your way to connecting with the group. It’s exciting and exhilarating. At college as a mature student, I used to call the senior professors the ‘old yellers.’ We need to give the voice to a new generation.”  

As we continue to chat, I ponder the power of change and continuity in storytelling. I also remember that I had heard Shawn speak at a BWB Storytelling Tuesday last year. He is fantastically engaging, a natural storyteller who is as fully alive in his own space when speaking as I feel here at the keyboard. And I realize we are of the same “feral generation,” as I call it, walking between the analog world of the “old yellers” and the digital one of our future leaders and storytellers. As he continues to share amazing stories with me, I feel what I know: stories are transformative; they instruct and inspire in all directions, enriching our lives and reminding all of us who we are and can be. They can surprise us. 

“Stories must take us from one place to another, not just in the plot but more importantly inside ourselves. Look at the movie Jurassic Park. On the surface it’s a story about a dinosaur park gone wrong. But deeper down, it’s about a man who doesn’t like children who later finds himself holding on and protecting them for dear life.”  

By the end of our phone call, our likemindedness is clear: we both love the connection through the craft, and the possibilities that flow from this mutual awareness. And we are both rebels in our own ways. I recall how I often pushed against school’s suffocating conventions and rules, playing by them when it made sense to do so. Shawn and I share a moment of recognition. I see that we don’t come from different worlds after all, but the same one discovered and understood through exploration, and I find my storytelling joy and passion reignited. He’s got it, the magic, I think to myself. 

I ask him to send me one of his stories, to share with you the reader. He fires one over. It is poignant and powerful. 

It’s called “Wag Your Tail First,” and here it is… 

Under the cover of darkness one night in mid-December 1984, on the railway bridge that passes over the East Pine River near Chetwynd, British Columbia, I asked my closest friend, Keith Paquette, to help my brother lower me over the edge of the bridge on a rope, in order to paint the name of our favourite 1980s rocker, Billy Idol, on the upright support column, so that the traffic on the parallel highway bridge could see it.

Keith encountered some valuable rethink after not fully digesting my answer to his perfectly valid question, “Why would you do that?” Instead, he wisely chose to remain on the riverbank that night and watch my brother and me from a distance.

After 15 minutes and now unable to hold on after dropping my paint cans, my explanation to Keith that “this isn’t graffiti; it is art” and “it’s okay, the ice on the river will break our fall” suddenly seemed to be less meaningful.

Feeling mostly invincible 20 minutes earlier, I was now exhausted and scared, looking down at the river, over 100 feet below, while sliding further down a very short bit of slippery nylon rope. I didn’t feel like I was made of rubber and teflon any longer. I had to climb up. There was no way down which could be survived.

It’s true, scenes from your life flash by during a state of high anxiety, slow motion really, ending with the small newspaper headline (byline on page three) that my mother would likely read the next day about a boy who died in the East Pine River last night if I didn’t climb up.

I wasn’t certain if my muscles were screaming louder than my brother, who combined swear words with a teenage creativity and vigour as he delivered his greatest motivational opus, so I climbed one inch, then another. Somehow hooking his feet on the steel girders, my brother was able to reach the hood of my winter coat and pull me up. We rejoined Keith on the riverbank and resolved to come back in the summer to try again.

But we couldn’t, because on a beautiful, sunny day Keith drowned in Moberly Lake while swimming with friends. If anyone deserved to fall off the bridge that cold December night it was me. But Keith didn’t deserve to drown on a bright, sunny day at Moberly Lake. Life is so unfair.

Keith was such a kind soul, simple and kind-hearted and always happy. Keith was liked by everybody. Keith was employed by my father, not because he was a good worker, but because he had a good heart. Keith reminded me to always smile and be the first to say hi to everybody you meet because you don’t know what they are going through.

He said, “If you want to have more friends, just be as smart as man’s best friend and always wag your tail first; just smile and say hi to every stranger.” Good advice, Keith.

It’s true that we all have a terminal illness called life, but Keith outlived life — in the smiles he gave and enjoyed. Through the staggering sadness of losing such a young, happy person, I saw my grief was amplified in his mother and 11 siblings. What I also noticed (all at once) was how no one could talk about Keith without smiling. Maybe life is just what it needs to be.

Keith was laid to rest outside of Chetwynd, but he lives in each smile I see. Sometimes when I pass a sad-looking stranger, I think of Keith and I wag my tail first with a friendly smile. Maybe if we all did this, Keith would keep on living. Thanks, Keith.

Shawn will be speaking at BWB’s next Storytelling Tuesday event, on October 12 at Yanni’s Grill, Mission Creek Gold Club. [Shawna: I leave it to you to link as you see fit!]

Reach out to Shawn to connect with a phone call (250-408-9124) or visit the in-person and online workshops on Meetup  and put the fun back into dysfunctional.

Tom Kernaghan, owner of Oak Writer
I write stories about people, businesses, and communities so that people will remember what makes them uniquely powerful.

Tell me your story!
(250) 863-6297


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