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What I learned from almost burning down my college residence

I'll never forget the best apology I've ever written. I've made plenty of mistakes since then but I haven't managed to apologize for them quite so effectively.

This is the apology:

I set off my college fire alarm and everyone had to be evacuated. Via Facebook.

For context, I'll tell you about how I came to write this before I get into the actual writing mechanics.

Please be advised that this post contains descriptions of cooking and photographs of food.


The false fire I've never been a good cook. I love eating food, but I can't make it to save my life. So when I ran out of meals on my first-year meal plan at university and decided to make my own food for the rest of the term, I ought to have foreseen the consequences.

It was late March, 2013 — the Passover season. The college Jewish culture club had marked the observance by making latkes for us to enjoy, leaving their spare ingredients in the communal kitchen. It was the perfect opportunity for me to make a seasonal dinner. For someone who can't cook, I think I did pretty well. I made the latke mix and managed to shape them somewhat evenly.

Fun fact: I documented my cooking efforts in a photo album called "culinary (mis)adventures. Little did I know how true that name would hold. Photo by Iris Robin.

I documented my cooking efforts in a photo album called "culinary (mis)adventures." Little did I know how true that name would hold. Photo by me.

I took the latkes off the heat and popped them on my plate, on top of a paper towel to soak up the grease. Things were going just fine.

I then took the pan and dumped it into the sink. I ran cold water over the pan to cool it down, because how else was I going to wash it? I thought nothing of the giant plume of steam that erupted from the sink when the water hit the hot surface.

It was a little cloudy in the kitchen, but otherwise, everything was just fine. I went to squeeze washing-up liquid all over the pan when the fire alarm went off, blaring as though everyone was going to die at that very moment. It was particularly 'alarming' (ha) because this was the first time the alarm had gone off, if I recall correctly.

At the college I attended, you have to go to a mandatory fire safety session during orientation week, where you learn about all the ways that you could inadvertently cause a fire, as well as the cost of calling a fire crew. They emphasize that you have to cover the cost of calling the fire crew if you set off the alarm. I can't recall the exact amount so I'm not going to publish my best guess, but it was more than I had to spare as a first-year university student.

I'm not one to panic in a crisis, but I did think about the fine I'd have to pay. I told myself it didn't matter — I'd simply go downstairs and tell the porter that there was no need to call the fire department because there was no fire, it was just me in the kitchen. An innocent mistake for which I would surely be forgiven; no harm done, no fees charged.

Abandoning my food and belongings, I strolled confidently through the corridor and down the stairs, ignoring the horde of students scrambling to get outside. I reached the porter's office and explained myself.

"I set off the alarm by accident because I was cooking on the second floor," I said. "You don't need to call the fire department. You can turn the alarm off. It's okay."

I didn't do so badly, did I? Photo by me.

The porter looked at me, gravely. "We're wired to the fire department and they've already been called," he said. "When you get outside, they'll be there already."


I am certain that my face drained of colour. I felt sweat begin to gather on my palms. My heart-rate sped up and I took a deep breath. "This is fine," I thought to myself, even though I didn't believe it.

With no choice other than to join my peers on the lawn outside and wait for the all-clear to go back indoors, I left the porter's office, defeated. The alarm was still horribly audible from outside. More disgruntled students filed out the door into the brisk spring air. I stood away from the crowd, in the vain hope that I wouldn't be noticed. I tried to look as neutral as I could, but something in my expression must have given me away because one of the senior students saw me and smirked.

"It was you, wasn't it," he said. It wasn't a question; he knew.

I met his eyes for a split second and nodded, making the gesture as small and as inconspicuous as possible. I made my way to the back of the lawn, just in time to see the fire trucks roll in.

A couple of firefighters went inside, but I wasn't really paying attention to them. I thought about how long I'd have to pay the money and I hoped I wouldn't have to pay it all at once. I thought maybe I could negotiate a plan with the dean.

When I saw my friends outside, I confessed to them that it was me who set the fire alarm off. They found it rather more amusing than I did and one of them took this photo of me for posterity.

My guilt was clear. Photo by Eleanor Laffling.

I don't know how much time passed before we were allowed back in. As I walked back to the kitchen to salvage what was left of my dinner, I knew that I owed everyone on that lawn a huge apology. I'd have to own up to causing the commotion and in the middle of midterm season no less!

Well, if I was going to own up to it, I wanted to approach it carefully. Perhaps I thought the situation was more serious than it actually was, being a nervous first-year. Either way, I wrote the short letter at the top of this post.

I'm quite proud of my apology and I had to do a fair bit of thinking while I wrote it. Though I didn't have this process in mind, I knew which elements I needed to show that I was sincere in a personable way. So here's what I learned from having to write this.


Saying sorry

Let's break it down. 1. Accept blame.

Dear Residents of Saint Hilda's College,
I write this to confirm that it was indeed me who set off the fire alarm of Tuesday, 26th March 2013. This was not out of spite, nor any malicious intent whatsoever; nor was it any effort on my part to expand my already needlessly prominent College profile. I was simply making dinner. (For those who are interested, I was making latkes. Happy Passover!)

Address your statement of apology directly to those affected. In this case, to the residents who had to leave the building as a result of my actions.

You can be explicit in taking responsibility. This helps keep things simple and gives you a natural path to follow.

It seems obvious that you'd include whatever it was you're sorry for, but you'd be surprised at the number of apologies that don't do this. You can't apologize for something that you don't admit to, or for something you're not sorry about.

It's not good enough to say "I'm sorry for what I said," or "I'm sorry if you were upset." The first isn't specific enough and doesn't set you up to talk about why what you did was wrong. The second pins the blame on the reader. Of course they were upset; this is why you're apologizing.

Now, if I were to write this apology today, I wouldn't emphasize that I set off the alarm accidentally. It's totally natural to want to defend yourself but don't spend too long dwelling on your intentions. The problem with doing that is that it centres you when the apology should be about the people you affected. Don't beat yourself up in your apology; you can do that in your own time if you must.

If you did act maliciously and you're apologizing because you regret it, you should say so. Explain why you did it and why you now regret it. Be honest — the recipient will appreciate it.

2. Acknowledge the impact on others.

I apologise [sic] profusely for disrupting your evening; whatever assignments on which you were working, whatever television show you were watching, whatever sex you were having-- any manner of things that were interrupted as a result of my incompetence, I am sorry.

When you're writing an apology, you need to show that you understand the consequences of your actions. Be as specific as possible. If you said or did something oppressive, acknowledge the power dynamics of the situation and the systems that you supported by doing so. Seek out work by members of the group you hurt and learn from it.

In terms of humour, read the room. By that, I mean judge whether it's appropriate to use it and how. I was lucky in the sense that my mistake was more of an inconvenience than an offence and it's easy to laugh at. You won't want to make light of more serious situations, especially if you've hurt a large group of people that you don't know particularly well, or if you did something deeply offensive. Since I was apologizing to my dorm-mates, I was able to get away with using some cheeky humour.

When you can't use humour, candour is best. Even if you can't empathize, do your best to be sympathetic.

3. Do better

As a result of this fiasco, I have decided to cease my attempts at culinary activities, graciously accepting that, for once, I truly am too hot to handle.
Please feel free to send complaints and derision in my direction.
Sincerely yours,

As you near the end of your apology, describe the steps you'll take to deal with the consequences of your mistake and do better in the future. Again, this should be as specific as possible and it should be actionable. In my case, it was that I would stop cooking so that there was no risk of causing the same inconvenience.

If you're unsure what to do in order to make amends, reach out to the people you upset and ask them what they'd like you to do. Listen to them and take their concerns seriously. If you learned something while doing more research on why what you did was inappropriate or hurtful, you can say that you are working to educate yourself on it.

When making commitments in an apology, you should only promise to do things that you can and will actually do. If you are truly sorry, you'll be willing to do the work needed to remedy the situation. People will hold you to the promises you make and in being accountable for your actions, you're also accountable for fixing them.

Finally, establish a channel of communication between yourself and the people you're apologizing to. Even if you've met before or if you've corresponded previously, let them know that you're open to discussing the issue further. Provide a way for them to contact you. Be willing to listen to anybody who decides to take you up on this.

Your valediction will depend on how formal your apology is and how well you know the addressee. If you're totally stumped, go with "sincerely."


So... what actually happened?

Now, I realize that I never finished my story. Did I have to pay for the fire crew? How did my peers react to the apology?

One of the firefighters decided to take a photo with my food for some reason. Photo by an unnamed firefighter.

One of the firefighters decided to take a photo with my food for some reason. Photo by a firefighter. I was never charged for the incident because I didn't set off the alarm deliberately. I learned that the charge was there as a deterrent for people who set off the alarm as a prank and that it would have been enforced had I done it on purpose.

As for the apology and its reception, I did my best to own it. This meant exposing myself to the good-natured mockery of my peers, most of whom didn't seem to be as angry with me as I expected.

They were, however, quick to exaggerate the event and retell it to this day as though the college were actually at risk of being burned to the ground.

My friends dubbed March 26 the anniversary of "Sebarson" and they see fit to remind me of it by posting memes and fire-related imagery on my Facebook profile.

One of my very good friends created this image of me and the burning college, which resurfaces every "Sebarson." Image by Amy Yvorchuk.

Once, it got to the point where I was meeting someone for the first time and the first thing he said to me was "you're the one that started the fire," even though he didn't know me at the time of the alleged "fire."

Over the years, I've become rather fond of the way this story has been mythologized. It created an opportunity for me and my friends to laugh and share a moment. It's unforgettable, not only because it taught me the skill of apology, but also because my friends will never let me live it down.

No buildings were burned during the events described in, or the writing of, this post.

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