Snapshots 5 – No Time for Writing Poetry

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.

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11 thoughts on “Snapshots 5 – No Time for Writing Poetry”

  1. Oh Saloma, this entry made me cry. I feel that God gives each of us a talent, and I believe yours was writing. How sad it would be if He had never given you a way to the road to pursue it. I cannot even imagine the agony of your decision to leave the faith of your childhood, and how it still must hurt, but I find it sad in all the Amish books I read, when a child’s God-given talent is stifled as being proud. I wonder if that does not make Him weep. God bless you, in all you do, and for sharing your story with us.

  2. Saloma,thanks so much for sharing this. I love the way these people took the time to care about your education. It is interesting how everything from our past is woven together to make us who we are today.
    Blessings to you, my friend!

    Have a wonderful week,
    Karen

  3. Now I’m going to spend all day wondering why that teacher pulled out the poetry suggestions when she did. What an interesting thing to say and what unfortunate timing!

    Sometimes you write things like this, so personal to you, and it brings back a parallel memory of similar things that happened to me. One year I had many unexcused absences. An “unexcused” one was any absence that didn’t have a doctor’s note. I really was sick but my parents never took me to a doctor, preferring home doctoring to anything else. Anyway, wonderful post, Saloma.

  4. This reminds me of how important it is to be ready to give a “word in season” to those who cross our path. We never know what fruit may come from it – for them and others down the road.

    Waving and grinning,

    Rhonda

  5. Hi, Saloma, I just stumbled across your blog and you should see me smile and nod and shake my head as I read. I grew up Old Order Mennonite in northern Indiana. I left at the age of 23. After teaching at an Old Order Mennonite School for four years, I went to college to become a public school teacher. I have now been in the public schools for around twenty years. My life has been so very similar (as yours) and yet so very different. I still live in two worlds and have not totally figured out which one is the real me!

    Your comment about poetry reminded me of my introduction to Japanese Haiku poetry in the fourth grade. My teacher had set up a large box as a poetry area. We could sit in it and write a Haiku. I still remember the thrill of sitting in that boxed-in area and writing. I went home and published my own Haiku booklet. My love of poetry was born in that poetry box at the age of ten.

    I’m glad that your teacher’s prophetic comment brought forth fruit. I look forward to reading your memoirs.

  6. Hi, Saloma! Just a quick note to let you know I’m almost keeping up with you! Your schedule shows you busier than ever and visiting some warmer climates than home… but home appears to be much warmer than any winter we’ve had in my memory.. and not that much snow, either.

    I love your “Snapshots” and am so happy you had the chance for public school, especially in 3rd and 4th grade .. very impressionable years. God knew of course, and gave you the perfect teachers. Even the scary ones prepared you for the future!

    My scary one was 6th grade … not sure what she prepared me for, but she retired that year. I always felt she retired a year too late!

  7. Hi, Saloma, I just stumbled across your blog and you should see me smile and nod and shake my head as I read. I grew up Old Order Mennonite in northern Indiana. I left at the age of 23. After teaching at an Old Order Mennonite School for four years, I went to college to become a public school teacher. I have now been in the public schools for around twenty years. My life has been so very similar (as yours) and yet so very different. I still live in two worlds and have not totally figured out which one is the real me!

    Your comment about poetry reminded me of my introduction to Japanese Haiku poetry in the fourth grade. My teacher had set up a large box as a poetry area. We could sit in it and write a Haiku. I still remember the thrill of sitting in that boxed-in area and writing. I went home and published my own Haiku booklet. My love of poetry was born in that poetry box at the age of ten.

    I’m glad that your teacher’s prophetic comment brought forth fruit. I look forward to reading your memoirs.

  8. My scary teacher was my third grade teacher. However, because my dad was a teacher and felt this teacher’s behavior towards me was over the top he advocated for me. Unfortunately the policy in that school was to never switch a child out of one classroom and into the other (there were two of each grade in my elementary school). Instead as soon as my classwork was completed I was to be sent across the hall to the library. Some days she would hand me the work sheet first–by the time all 32 kids received their copy I would have mine completed. I would turn it in and go across the hall. Eventually she handed me a packet and I would go across the hall and complete it there and then do projects for the librarian. I learned more in that year than in any other year of school and a spent about ten minutes a day in class from October on. Nancy

  9. It is so obvious that you were a bright, motivated, gifted child – too bad that was sqelched back then for you. However, I think that made you more motivated and helped give you the strength and courage to finally go your own way. It’s also obvious that both the principal and that teacher knew you and were trying to look after your best interests. Maybe that teacher thought you’d have some free (!) time in the summer when you could write, or maybe she was just “planting seeds”. I’m a firm believer that we all plant seeds by what we do and say – sometimes we see the results; sometimes not. But we never know what someone does with our example. What a fine one you are!!

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