Questions and Answers
Discovering more more about the Amish
I take great strides in trying to portray the Amish in the most factual way I know possible and it has lead me into some funny, sad, exciting, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with my Amish friends. The only request my Amish friends asked of me was to be truthful when depicting the Amish religion and way of life. I’ve honored their request and any information a reader discovers in my books (fictional or nonfictional) about the Amish is truthful. I decided to start keeping track of the questions I get asked from time to time about the Amish and decided to dedicate a portion of my website to answering those questions. If you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask it (in the contact form to the right). I’ll keep this page updated with the latest questions and answers.
My Experience at an Amish Schoolhouse Part II
Below is the continuation of my personal experience when asked if I’d like to watch the children’s Christmas Program 🙂
I silently counted seconds in my head as they sang.
“Joy” (one Mississippi) “to” (two Mississippi) “the” (three Mississippi) “world” (four Mississippi.)
I think I know why their singing is so slow. Without radio or television to train their ear to faster tunes, the pace they used to sing Joy to the World is almost exactly the pace with which they sing hymns during their worship services. The songs they sing on Sunday mornings are achingly beautiful but take forever to finish. Singing very slowly feels familiar and comfortable to the children and their teachers.
This tradition of slow singing goes back five centuries to when the Anabaptists (literally “one who baptizes again”) were being persecuted because of their decision to baptize only adults (or children they deemed old enough to freely choose to become part of the church.)
Infant baptism had become a firm tradition among the established churches at that time, but the Anabaptists considered infant baptism to be unbiblical, and they wanted none of it. For this the Anabaptists (who later became known as the Mennonites and Amish) were jailed and killed.
Like the early Christians, the Anabaptists often sang hymns as they sat in their cells. The jailers found this humorous. Some of them, to entertain the other jailers, would dance to the hymns. The Amish responded in a typical Amish fashion. They simply began to sing their songs so slow that the jailers could no longer dance to the tune.
The Amish are a people who love to poke fun at themselves. There is a joke among them that a man can come late to services on Sunday morning, take the time to water and feed his horse, come inside and find a seat, all before the first verse of the first song is finished.
That’s the kind of singing I witnessed in the Amish school that day. Sweet, earnest-faced children singing so slowly that a couple of them began to yawn with the effort to stay awake. They stayed in tune, though, and were not shy about singing out.
There was something else interesting in the way the children sang. For each song, a different child was selected to be the Vorsinger. There are no musical instruments used in the Amish worship or in their schools except the human voice. Therefore the Vorsinger helps pitch and start the song. What this sounds like is a certain child will sing the first syllable for each line of every verse. The rest of the singers come in on the second syllable. That one lone voice standing out for a moment before the others join in creates a sort of syncopated rhythm that is quite pleasing to hear. It also helps keep the group on pitch throughout the song.
This, too, I have heard in their worship services. The only difference is that during church, it is always a man who is the Vorsinger. For the Christmas program, some of the little girls got to be Vorsingers as well.
Nearly every child had a poem to say or a part to play. The poems were all about Christmas and Jesus and Mary. Some were quite lengthy and yet it was rare for one of the children to stumble over a word. They might pause for a moment, stare at the wall as they searched their memory and then they would start back up again wherever they had lost their way. There were a lot of words to memorize but each had mastered their piece and recited it well.
One thing that was very noticeable was the lack of applause. I was enjoying the program so much that I almost clapped after the first song but stopped myself just in time. Applause is not part of the Christmas program experience for these children or in any other part of their lives. The Amish try to keep themselves and their children from egotistical behavior. Apparently they believe that applause can foster unwanted pride in a child’s heart.
In addition to the singing and the recitations, the children did some skits. The classroom was divided into two sections with shower curtains strung across the entire room on wires held up in the middle by a hook screwed into the ceiling. The two teachers stood on opposite sides of the room, and when it was time for a skit, they would close the curtain by walking toward each other while pulling the curtain with them. Then they would both disappear and get the children ready.
One of the skits involved a table around which several little girls stood while singing a song about baking a cake for Christmas morning. It was sung to the tune of what sounded like “One Little, Two Little, Three Little Indians.”
“One little girl breaks the eggs, one little girl breaks the eggs, one little girl, breaks the eggs, all on Christmas morning.”
The verses took the girls through all the steps necessary to bake a cake. They stirred the eggs, added the flour, sugar, milk etc. all in rhythm with the song.
This skit was also accompanied by a great deal of nervous giggling on the part of the girls baking the cake.
In spite of the giggling and embarrassment, each girl did her part using old-fashioned kitchen implements and real ingredients. The eggs were beaten with a hand-cranked beater. The sifter looked like it was about a hundred years old and borrowed from home. Although the girls were young, the thing that struck me was how competent and familiar they all were with the implements. The child who broke the eggs didn’t miss a beat as she broke them neatly into the large mixing bowl. The little girl who smoothed the batter into the cake pan was quite adept with the use of a spatula.
When it was mixed and ready, they carried it over to a pretend oven made out of cardboard, then they sang a verse about waiting for the cake to bake. When that verse was finished, they opened the cardboard door and pulled out an already-baked cake which they then brought over to the table and sang about icing the cake. After that, all the girls marched down to the basement.
Then the audience caught sight of four Amish boys peeking in through the window of the back door. All were wearing sweaters and sock hats and had ruddy cheeks from standing outside in the cold weather. The boys carefully sneaked in while singing their own song. It involved wanting to eat the cake but admonishing one another that it wasn’t allowed. All the boys mimed being SO hungry as they circled the cake and sang about their stomachs growling.
The moment one boy couldn’t take it anymore and was about to dig into the cake, all the little girls tripped back up the steps and caught him at it. The boy tried to hide the cake behind his back but “accidentally” sat on top of it.
The woeful look on his face tickled all the other children so much that they all burst out laughing.
Several who were seated on the benches in front of us turned around to make sure we were enjoying the play as much as they were. Satisfied, once they saw that we were laughing, too, they turned back around to continue to enjoy the program.
This sweet action of glancing around to make sure we were enjoying ourselves was repeated several times. It was an especially Amish thing to do. They are a people who are quick to make sure everyone feels included. Even the children learn early on to make sure everyone in the group is okay.
The following skit involved nothing more than one of the older girls lying on top of a bench while sleeping and snoring. One of the boys came over to her with a newspaper in his hand and asked if he could sit down. She woke up and said, “This is my bench.” But she sat up anyway and scooted over. The boy sat down and proceeded to read his newspaper.
Then another girl came along with her knitting and also asked to sit down. The first girl was obviously not happy with how things were proceeding. So, instead of complaining or arguing, she began to scratch herself. Her face, neck, arms and legs all develop this terrible itch. She scratched away while the two other children become more and more uncomfortable with sitting next to her. They soon packed up their things and wandered off. At that point, the first girl laid back down on the bench with a blissful look on her face and went back to sleep.
The skit was cute and funny, and once again all little heads turned to make sure that we were enjoying it with them. We were very much enjoying it, so they smiled and nodded, yet again satisfied that we were having a good time.
I lost count of the songs that the children sang. At least a dozen, maybe more. Most were recognizable. Silent Night, Joy to the World, Amazing Grace, Dashing through the Snow, Jingle Bells, etc. Two songs were sung in German. I did not recognize the tunes.
The German songs were interesting to me because one of the most remarkable things about the Amish is that they have managed to keep their own language alive and vibrant for so many years while being equally fluent in English. They speak a form of German that most people refer to as Pennsylvania Deutsch. This is the language they use in their homes and to one another when Englisch people aren’t around, and sometimes even then. It is very much their mother tongue.
A friend of mine who was raised Amish left the church as a young man in order to become a professional linguist. He became a Bible translator, mastered many languages and lived in different countries, but when he fell victim to a stroke, the only language in which he could communicate was Pennsylvania Deutsch—the words he had learned in the cradle.
The Amish accomplish this dual language fluency by speaking Pennsylvania Deutsch almost exclusively to their children in their early years. An Amish child might learn a few English words, but the English language is not deliberately taught until a child begins school at the age of six. At that point, they are expected to become fluent in English, which they do. One of my Amish friends told me of an aunt with Down Syndrome who could switch easily between both languages.
During breaks in the program, while the teachers got the children prepared for the next poem or song or skit, I took my time looking around the room. With such plain homes, I did not know if the Amish classrooms would be decorated at all—even for Christmas. I was pleased to see that great care had been taken by the children and teachers to make their school look special for the holiday.
The walls were covered with coloring book-type pictures of bells, doves, and candles that the children had carefully colored. There were glittery stars hanging from the ceilings and red and white streamers also looping down.
Absent were any pictures of Santa. The Amish do not celebrate Santa with their children. There were also no pictures of people, which was no surprise. The more conservative Amish tend to avoid pictures of themselves or others.
In the very front, directly over the green chalkboard, was the basic ABC chart that most of us used years ago during grade school—the one that had upper and lower case in both printed and cursive letters. There was an additional chart almost mirroring it on the other side. This was the German chart of letters. It was quite gothic looking, but plain enough for the children to understand and copy. Even I understood what the letters were because of the thoughtful addition of helpful pictures above each German letter. A for apple. B for ball. C for cat, etc.
At the top of the black board were words admonishing the children “If you do not have time to do it right, you do not have time to do it over.” I have heard from my Amish friends that this saying hangs on the walls of many Amish schools.
There were few to none of the cheerful bright primary colors that Englisch children are usually surrounded by. Instead the walls in this school room were painted dark tan–about the color of coffee with cream. The ceiling was painted exactly the same shade as the walls. At the windows there were darker brown curtains, held back in a swag. The floor, which was made of large sheets of plywood, was painted also—dark brown.
The windows were impressive. They usually are in Amish structures where lack of electricity makes natural light especially important. I counted ten window, which was a lot for such a relatively small room. There was a good reason for this–the need for natural light in a building without electricity. The day was overcast, but with the windows uncovered except for the swag curtains, there was more than enough light for the children to do their lessons. The view from the windows was lovely.
I knew that when the parents came for the evening program the following night, it would be dark outside. At that point, the classroom might be illuminated with kerosene and candles, both staples in most Amish households. There might also be gas lights which they use sometimes at night in their homes. Gas lights hiss, which is annoying, but they do shed enough light to read.
As I said before, the sect of Amish who call themselves the Andy Weavers (after a bishop by that name) are one of the most conservative sects within the Amish religion. This affects their lifestyle in significant ways.
Buttons are not allowed on the dresses of their teenage girls or grown women. It is because buttons could conceivably be considered decorative, and the Amish are dedicated to being a plain people. The two teachers’ clothing, I notice, is pinned together with straight pins in the front. The two teenage girls sitting directly in front of me have straight pins holding their dresses together in the back.
The little girls sitting in front of us do wear buttons, down the back of their dress. I’m assuming the church decided that straight pins might be well enough for adults, but not safe for small children’s clothing. The first time I met Emma, for instance, I thought that she had thrown on a dress she had not yet completed sewing. I have never asked why safety pins are forbidden, but I know that in this sect they are.
The little boys are dressed exactly like their fathers. They wear homemade black pants with homemade suspenders. In this sect, factory-made, stretchy suspenders with metal snaps are not acceptable. Those things would be considered entirely too fancy. Instead, their mothers sew suspenders from the same cloth as their pants, and then sew the suspenders together in the back, creating an X so that the straps won’t fall off their shoulders. Their pants do not have zippers because zippers are not allowed on men or women’s clothing. Instead they wear what I think of as sailor pants—a square flap in front held up by two buttons at the waistline.
The singing group up front included all ages. The older boys in the back. The littlest in the front. They had colored pieces of paper taped to the floor so everyone could find their spot quickly. Their poems on the whole were delivered in a rapid fire way with no inflection. It was obvious their main goal was to get their recitation finished as quickly as possible.
A boy and girl did a question-and-answer comedy routine that was well-written and funny. Yet their rapid-fire delivery was no different than when the other children recited a poem about Jesus in the manger.
Everything went smoothly until one precious little girl walked to the front, smiled, took a deep breath, looked directly at me—and burst into tears. She absolutely could NOT make herself say her piece. The teacher walked to the front, shielded the little girl from our eyes and encouraged her, but the precious child simply could not make herself go on. She was about eight years old, and such a delicate-looking little thing. Her older brother, about fourteen, came to her side and tried to coax her into saying her piece. Neither the teacher nor the brother’s encouragement helped alleviate her fears or shyness. She went back to her place in the group, still weeping.
The little girl standing next to her, one of Emma’s girls, held their shared music folder so the crying child could shield her face from the audience as the Christmas program continued. Eventually the little girl felt safe enough to pull the music folder down and once again reveal her pretty little face.
She wasn’t the only one in the program who felt the need to hide, though. Several of the bigger boys in the back did the same thing throughout most of the program.
I still wonder, and regret, if the presence of two Englisch people—my son and I—were the cause of some of the shyness. I think we probably were. The Amish are a warm and hospitable people once they get to know you, but Englisch people, no matter how well-meaning we are or how much we smile encouragement, can still be frightening to children used only to those who are part of their own isolated community.
Two hours later, after we had been thanked for coming by a child repeating yet another poem in the same sing-song fashion they all had adopted, the program ended by the children all filing out of the room and down into the basement.
We waited for everyone to leave, and then we exited past the teachers and out the back door instead of yet again going through the basement. One of the teachers smiled and nodded to us, but there was no attempt to engage us in conversation.
As we left, I saw an enormous pile of firewood behind the schoolhouse. Fathers had stacked several cords of seasoned firewood close to where the teachers could toss it into the single wood stove that heated the school house. To the side, I saw a child who had apparently waited as long as she could, running to the girl’s side of the outside privy.
With no plumbing, no furnace, no electricity, and only a short list of textbooks and teacher’s manuals–those two patient teachers are managing to educate yet another generation of Amish children.
After we left the Christmas program, we went directly to Emma’s house to thank her for making it possible for us to go.
“So you enjoyed it?” Emma asked.
“I’m so glad.” She smiled. “Maria and I have something for you.”
It turns out that Emma and her three-year-old daughter had baked dozens of Christmas cookies that morning and decorated them while the older children were at school. She had wrapped several in cellophane and put them on a decorative paper plate all ready to give us when we came by. I knew the cookies had been baked in a wood stove. This takes a lot of skill. I can hardly imagine accomplishing such a task while caring for a toddler and a baby.
In spite of all the work she has to do, and the primitive tools with which she has to do it. In spite of being so thin from hard work and nursing this latest child that I worry about her health, Emma had taken time to make a pretty plate of cookies to take home with me. Little Maria smiled up at me, her little gray dress stained with flour from helping her mother bake, her bonnet slightly askew. There was a smear of green icing on her cheek.
After we left, we once again passed the school house and my son snapped a photo of the building.
The school is set on such a beautiful lot. Large trees are scattered around. A small creek splashes nearby. It is a spot that could fetch a nice price in our area for a building lot. But Leah told me that an Amish man who owned the property donated it. He had never married nor had any children of his own. This was his way of helping the church.
The government does not fund these one-room schoolhouses. Nor do the Amish want them to.
Instead, in addition to paying taxes for our Englisch public schools in the form of property taxes, they pay for their own children’s education out of their own pockets. It is not unusual for an Amish person, like the farmer where Emma’s children live, donate land for a school.
Someone else who might have a lumber mill, or a stand of timber, will donate lumber. Others donate their building skills. Everyone gives what they can. As soon as there are enough children in a community, a school board consisting of three to five Amish fathers will be created. This school board approves all school activities, selects playground equipment, and chooses text books. Then a teacher is hired—a teacher who frequently has no more than a formal eighth grade education.
The program of education used does not change much from year to year. I once asked an Amish father what kind of textbooks his children used. Without hesitation he recited the subject, title, and publisher of about six different books. I was impressed with his knowledge of his child’s education.
In choosing curriculum, only basic subjects are stressed. Reading, writing, spelling, English, arithmetic (the old-fashioned method). Other subjects taught are geography, history, penmanship, health, German, writing/reading, and singing.
To Be Continued…