When I was going into third grade, an Amish school was being built in our area. For some reason, my parents decided to send Joe and me to Amish school that year, and to keep my two sisters in public school. As far as I know, there were no pictures taken of me when I was nine.
When I was going into fourth grade, my parents decided to put us all back into public school, for reasons still unknown to me. That year I had Mrs. Rusnak for a teacher. She had curly gray hair and dark eyes framed by pink glasses in the pointed style of the sixties. She was kind most of the time, but one day, several months into the year, she walked up and down the aisles and slapped papers onto student’s desks, saying, “You haven’t learned a thing in arithmetic this year, and you haven’t done a thing to improve your penmanship!” I flinched at every slap, waiting for my turn to find out what I was bad at. But she only stopped at my desk long enough to drop off my English paper, with an A written at the top left-hand corner.
I read many books the year I was in Mrs. Rusnak’s class. Many of them were books Mem and Datt wouldn’t have approved of. Nancy Drew books were among them. I made sure the ones I took home were the safe ones, such as the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.
A few weeks before Christmas, Mrs. Rusnak told us we would draw names for a gift exchange, the boys and girls separately. We girls all put our names on little pieces of green paper, dropped them in a hat, and watched Mrs. Russell mix them and pass the hat around. Then we each drew a name from the hat. The boys did the same.
On the day we opened our gifts, I was so excited, I could barely contain myself. Mrs. Rusnak finally passed out the gifts. Mine was a small box wrapped in red paper with a delicate green bow on top, and I almost hated to untie it, it was so beautiful. I held my breath, as I unwrapped it. Inside lay a little silver necklace and bracelet on a cushion of soft cotton. My heart stopped a moment as my excitement turned to disappointment. All this anticipation, and now I could not have this gift. I wondered what I was going to do with it.
Debra Model, who sat in front of me, asked, “What did you get, Saloma?”
I showed her the necklace and bracelet. “Oh, they’re beautiful,” she said, and we both gazed at them. I whispered, “I’m not allowed to wear them.” I paused and than asked, “What did you get?”
“Oh, just this,” she said, pushing a book with her hand. “I’ve already read it. It was a copy of Heidi.
“I love that book,” I whispered.
“Want to trade?” Debra asked.
Without a word I gave her the necklace and bracelet. I looked at the cover of the book with a picture of Heidi’s grandfather’s hut on top of the mountain. Heidi and the goats played in a field of flowers. I lifted it in my hands and the beauty of it made me hold my breath. It was the first book I ever owned.
On days when Mem felt overwhelmed with the amount of work she had to do, she would have me stay home to help her. She would fill out the excuse slips afterwards, “Stayed home to help.”I had been absent many days, when I was given a letter from the principal’s office. I brought home the letter and gave it to Mem. I heard her and Datt talking about the note. Mem was being asked by the school not to have me stay home to help anymore. I could tell she was upset by the way she couldn’t keep her mind on what she was doing.After that, whenever I stayed home, the excuse slips simply said, “Ill.”
One day I was asked to go to the principal’s office. I had only seen Mr. Franks’ office as I’d walked by on my way to the bus, and I’d seen him in the hallways or the cafeteria. Whenever he saw me, he would say a hearty “Hello, Saloma!” and sometimes he would stop and talk to me. It seemed to me he talked to me more than the other students, but maybe he had a way of making all students feel that way.
When I walked slowly into his office, I held my breath and concentrated on the different colors of tile at my feet. Mr. Franks sat behind his desk, which was piled high with papers. He looked at me over the top of his glasses. “Saloma, have a seat,” he said calmly.
I sat down, with my hands in my lap.“Saloma, I’m sure you are wondering why I am asking you to come to my office.” Mr. Franks paused a moment. “You haven’t done anything wrong. But I need to know something. Were you really sick yesterday?” He took off his glasses and chewed on the earpiece, never taking his eyes from my face.
I looked at the stacks of papers on his desk and felt the confusion rolling around in my stomach. I knew that Mem had lied and that she would probably expect me to lie to cover up hers. Mem and Datt had whipped me for lying before. Would they whip me for not lying this time? The turmoil made my stomach turn.
Mr. Franks looked at me from across his desk. He was waiting patiently. He said quietly, “You can tell me the truth.”I swallowed back the tears. Finally, I shook my head to indicate that I had not been sick. Then I couldn’t hold the tears back. When I started crying, Mr. Franks slipped his glasses back on and said quietly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry. I just want you to get the schooling you deserve, Saloma. You are a good student.”
I cried harder. Mr. Franks handed me a tissue. After a few moments, he said gently, “You may go back to your classroom.”I wiped away the rest of my tears in the hall before going back into Mrs. Rusnak’s class.
* * *
In June, on the last day of school, Mrs. Rusnak asked me to remain inside when the others went out for recess. On my report card, it showed that I had been absent thirty-one days that year. I sat still in my desk, thinking she was going to ask me more about my absences. She sat down in Debra’s desk in front of me and pushed her pink glasses further up on her nose.“Saloma,” she said quietly, “Have you ever thought about writing poetry?”
I was speechless. How could I have told her that Amish girls don’t write poetry, that when I got home I had to help fill the wood box, clean out the lunch boxes, bake the next day’s lunch cookies or cake, fill the lanterns, help Mem make supper, and finally do dishes and sweep the kitchen. I couldn’t tell her that there wasn’t any time for poetry, that there wasn’t a private spot in our house where I could go to write, and that I had siblings who would snoop and scoff at what I wrote.
“I think it would be a good idea for you to think about it,” she said with a smile, and then she got up and left the classroom.
I sat still and stared after her. I wondered why she had waited until the last day of school to say this to me, and not earlier, when I could have done the writing at school.When I think of this now, I often wonder if Mrs. Rusnak had offered that suggestion to my future. And who knows whether this “seed” lay dormant for years, until I was ready to write — in this case prose, which seems to satisfy my muse.