After I finished Kindergarten, I had to get used to the longer days at school in first grade. Then I had the meanest teacher in second grade of all times. She was like Mrs. Trunchbull in the children’s book Matilda by Roald Dahl. On the first day of class, she went over all the rules, and for anyone not obeying the rules, there were dire consequences — she would step on anyone’s leg if we didn’t keep them tucked under our desks; she would pass out an F for anyone who tried writing in cursive (second grade was for learning how to print well); anyone fighting would be dragged by their ears down to the principal’s office; and anyone breaking the rules, why… and for this, Mrs. T moved her big body over to the counter on one side of the room. She grabbed onto the handle of a huge paper cutter, and said, “I’ll put their head in here and…” WHOMP!!!! she brought down the handle of the paper cutter with such force, it stopped my heart, before it started pumping so hard, I thought I couldn’t breathe. Perhaps it was a vivid imagination, or the fact that I’d witnessed enough chickens being slaughtered, or both, but I could see a head rolling off the counter onto the floor, with eyes open and a tongue hanging out. When I told Mem about it after school, she said that Mrs. T. wouldn’t really do that, she was only trying to scare us. I wished I could be sure of that.
The summer I had just survived Mrs. T’s class, an Amish school was being built a mile and a half from our house. Mem and Datt decided to send my older brother Joe and me to the new Amish school, but they sent Lizzie and Sarah to public school. The following year they decided they didn’t want to pay the Amish school tuition, so they sent us all back to the public school. When Datt found out that the middle schools in the area were going to consolidate, and that they would be teaching sex education, we all attended Amish school for the rest of our school days.
When I went into third grade in Amish school, I found that the other students had already learned how to write in cursive. Because of Mrs. T’s policy of no cursive, I didn’t know how to form many of the letters. (I had tried it once and I was scolded in front of the class for it). We weren’t supposed to whisper in class, but whenever I didn’t know how to make a letter, I would poke the girl in front of me and ask her and she would show me. Her name was Ruth Yoder, and this was the beginning of our friendship that lasted through the rest of my school days. We competed for the second to the top grades in our class (“Ervin”, who I wrote about in an earlier post, was always the top of the class). Then when we were fourteen, Ruth and I sadly lost touch with one another when her family moved to Michigan.
Two years after I transitioned into third grade in Amish school from Mrs. T’s class, my sister Sarah had to make the same transition. She was shy, and so she didn’t have the nerve to ask anyone during school hours for help. On many afternoons when we came home from school, she would ask me to teach her to make certain letters, but we were always short on paper. So we improvised; almost invariably the windows in the kitchen and dining room were steamed up. We’d use the steamed up windows like a chalkboard, where I would form letters or words, and then she would copy them. When one window got “used up” we would move on to another window. Normally Mem didn’t like for us to put our hands on the windows, but maybe she thought that this was a good way of saving paper, because she didn’t discourage us. Sarah and I both have fond memories of those fall and winder afternoons when we wrote all over the windows.
I have both good and bad memories of my years in the “higher grades” of the Amish school. I loved learning, but there was so much mean teasing and jockeying for position in the Amish school. I had experienced “cattiness” among the girls in public school, but seemed to be multiplied in the Amish school. There are so many hierarchies in the Amish culture: first there is the one with the men at the top, then the women, then the male children, and the female children are at the very bottom. Then there is the more arbitrary one in which you never quite know how to get to the top, you only know who’s there and who isn’t. So because Amish girls are the lowest on the totem pole of one hierarchy, the only way they can “advance” is by fighting for a higher position in the other one. My sisters and I happened to be at the bottom in both cases.
Thank goodness my friend was Ruth and not ruthless like the other girls in the upper grades. She managed to somehow stay neutral in all of the cattiness, and therefore I was very grateful for her friendship. I admired her talents, which included her beautiful handwriting and singing. Even though I tried to emulate her, I could not hold a candle to either of these talents.
After being out of touch with Ruth for many years, we’ve reconnected. I mentioned earlier that I had bought two quilts this summer. I knew Ruth and her family had moved to Indiana, so I asked the woman selling the quilts whether she knew Ruth, and lo and behold, they are good friends. Ruth and her husband were not home at the time, or else we would have given them a surprise visit. Ruth and I have talked on the phone for several hours, and we are trying to reconnect again.
Besides trying to navigate the spats in Amish school, I did love learning. I was so sad when my school days ended after eighth grade.
Me at seven years old
(For the story behind the photo, please visit my website.)
The Amish School I attended — Meadow Glow