When I was five years old, my parents decided to send me to kindergarten in public school. At the time, there were no Amish schools near where we lived, so that was not an option for my older brother, sister, and me. I am surprised that my parents decided to send me to kindergarten, however. It was not mandatory at the time, but I think they knew it would be easier for me to learn to speak English in kindergarten. I am grateful that I did get to go to kindergarten. One of my younger sisters was not so fortunate. Her introduction to school was far more traumatic than mine because of it.
I was looking forward to school. One of my favorite things to do that summer was to play school around the picnic table in the neighbors' old barn. Susan Sykora, used to be the "teacher."
I remember waking the morning of my first day of school. The sun shone through the leaves of the oak tree outside my window. I got up quickly and put on my brand new blue dress, my black stockings and shoes, and my new black organdy kopp. Then I went downstairs for breakfast. I was so excited, that I could only eat one little pancake. I waited impatiently for the bus to come. Finally, Mem said it was time to go outside and wait for the bus.
My brother Joe and my sister Lizzie and I walked out to the road. The neighbor children, Susan and Brian, who were not Amish, came out of their house. Their mother, Rae, came out with her camera and took a picture of us all standing in a row. I hoped Mem wasn’t looking out the window at the time. She never seemed to be looking when Rae took pictures of us. Perhaps it was Mem’s way of allowing picture taking without actually giving permission.
When we heard the bus coming down the road, I jumped up and down and clapped my hands. Joe said, “School isn’t that much fun.” I didn't believe him.
When the bus stopped, and the doors opened, I stretched my legs to follow Lizzie up the tall steps onto the bus. She chose an empty seat. Then, with a roar, the bus started up road. I looked at the house and saw Mem holding Baby Simon and waving from the kitchen window. I waved back. I had the fluttering butterfly feeling in my stomach. But when we turned the corner and I couldn't see home anymore, I got scared. I tried not to cry, but when the tears came anyway, I wiped them with the back of my hand. I was glad Lizzie didn't notice. She was looking out the window, to see who was getting on the bus.
Not many Amish children got on the bus as we drove up and down roads. I didn’t remember ever being so far away from home. When the bus finally stopped in front of the school, children poured out of the bus. They were all around us, bumping, shouting, and walking. I clung to Lizzie’s hand. We walked slowly into the school, down the long green hallway, and up the gray cement stairs. Lizzie stopped in front of a room and said, “This is the kindergarten room.” An English woman bent down and said something to me in English. She looked kind, but I didn’t want to understand her. I could usually figure out what people were saying in English by then, but I had to concentrate on what they said and watch their expressions. All I could think of was Mem at home and I wanted so much to be there, kneading bread with her in the warm kitchen. I put my arm up over my face and cried.
Lizzie talked to the teacher, then said to me, “Du musht ana hucka” (you have to sit down). She showed me a desk in the second row with my name taped in the top corner. I sat down and looked around. I saw none of the other children were Amish. I whispered to Lizzie, “I want you to stay with me.”
Lizzie said, “I will be right next door in the first grade room,” and left. I looked around. The desks were lined up in rows, facing the teacher’s desk in the front of the room. Behind the teacher’s desk was the blackboard and above that were the letters of the alphabet in black letters on green paper. The room smelled of crayons and paste. It was disconcerting to not understand everything the teacher said, but I watched what the other children did when the teacher said things I didn’t understand.
The second morning I cried again when I got to school and Lizzie came and told me I had to sit down at my desk and then she disappeared. I put my head on my desk and cried. I didn’t know anyone was standing next to me until I heard her say, “Hi.” I stopped crying and listened. Then I lifted my head and wiped at my tears with the back of my hands. A girl was standing there. She had on a yellow dress with pink flowers on it and a bow tied in the back. She had dark hair and brown eyes, like my own. “Hi,” she said again.
“Hi,” I said.
“What's your name?”
I started to say Lomie, and then I stopped myself. “Saloma,” I said.
“Mine's Linda. Want to see my desk?” She pointed to her desk in the next row.
I nodded and got up from my desk. Linda was showing me her pencil case when the bell rang and we had to take our seats.
Melinda Sue Garber was my new friend’s name. I will never forget her. She was the reason I started liking school and I eagerly looked forward to going each day. She was the reason I got up my gumption to climb to the top of the tall slide one day. We pushed one another on the swings, we jumped rope together, and if anyone was unfair to me on the playground, Linda spoke up in my defense. Maybe our paths will cross again some day, so that I can tell her how fondly I remember her.