Inside an Amish Schoolhouse Part I

A few weeks ago, an Amish friend called from her family’s telephone shanty to invite me to the annual Christmas program that would be performed at their church’s one-room school house. Some of her own children would have speaking parts. She thought I might be interested in coming and had already checked with the two teachers before she called. They had given their permission for me to come.

Few invitations have ever pleased me more. 

I’ve always longed to visit an Amish school house. As someone who writes about the Amish, I try to be as accurate in my portrayal of their culture as possible. I’ve been invited to their worship services, two weddings, several cookouts, and I often stay with Old Order Amish friends when I’m in the Holmes County area—the largest Amish settlement in the world.  

But I’ve never been invited inside an Amish school. Nor have I ever asked. Amish children are, as much as possible, sheltered from Englisch influences. An Amish person would be welcome to drop into a one-room schoolhouse uninvited and watch and they often do. I am not Amish and therefore I do not belong there. At least not without a direct invitation.  

Although I live a little over three hours from the large Holmes County, Ohio settlement, our own area has been blessed in recent years with a rapidly growing Amish settlement a few miles from my home. When I first became acquainted with these industrious people, I thought all Amish churches were alike.

I was wrong. There are over forty different Amish sects. The most well-known are the Old Order Amish, but the church settlement nearest us are from what they call the Andy Weaver sect. This branch is much more conservative than the Old Order Amish but slightly more liberal than the Swartzentrubers.   

These new Amish neighbors have brought many helpful things into our area. Many useful home businesses have opened up on some of our back country roads. It is also good to know that teams of skilled Amish carpenters are readily available. 

I have become friends with Emma, an Amish mother of seven, who lives nearby. Our friendship has been developed  in small, careful, increments over the past few years as I’ve stopped by her husband’s home business. We have talked about pregnancies and discussed local midwives. When anyone in my family is ill, she sympathizes and offers suggestions. She often has small gifts for me to take home–a ripe watermelon from her garden, a pound of homemade butter, extra tomatoes. Sometimes she offers a small treat from her kitchen. 

We’ve discussed cooking, canning, gardening, herbal medicine, the best way to churn butter and how she prefers working outdoors to being inside. She’s asked me into her home to show me the new flooring her husband installed the week before it was their turn to host church–always a week filled with a great flurry of cleaning and fixing up.

I’ve discovered that there really isn’t a lot of difference between Emma and me.  She loves her family, and I love mine. She worries about feeding them well and keeping them healthy, just like me. She loves being outdoors and I do, too. Both of us absolutely love a bargain. She tries to live a Christian life, and so do I.

As our friendship has deepened, we’ve become comfortable enough with one another to have some fun together. We’ve gone garage sale shopping and celebrated our good purchases. One summer day she introduced me to her special place—a cold, deep spring that never goes dry. 

There is one big difference between us though. She is more competent in domestic matters than I can ever aspire to. Emma grows and cans a huge garden every year. She raises chickens and sells eggs. She milks a cow morning and night and processes all the milk, cheese, cottage cheese, and butter her family can eat. Plus, she does all this with no electricity while raising seven children. 

It was months before I met her fifteen-year-old daughter, Leah, who is in great demand within the Amish community. When local Amish women have babies, they ask for Leah to come help care for the other children and run the household while they recuperate from childbirth. Leah can do practically anything. She often cans the new mother’s garden produce while also caring for the rest of the household if she happens to be there during harvest season.  

When I found out how competent she was, I asked if I could possibly hire her once a week to come work for me. Emma and Leah conferred and gave me the good news that Leah did have one free day a week that she could come clean for me….unless someone had a baby.

It was a good decision on my part. The girl can do more in one afternoon than I get done in a week. And she does it cheerfully!

Part of our deal is that lunch will be included. The first time we sat down to eat together, I realized that I was going to have a problem because Leah is not a big talker and I’ve never developed the knack of being comfortable with eating in silence if there is another person sitting across from me.

“Would your parents be upset if I turned on the television?” I asked her one day when the silence had gone on too long.

“Oh, no,” she quickly assured me. “They won’t mind.”

I had my doubts about that, but I was careful about what I selected. After some thought, I chose the program where the professional nanny goes into people’s homes to help them get their children and themselves straightened out. I figured with so many children in the family, learning about methods of child care would be interesting to her.

It was interesting, all right. Leah watched with slack-jawed amazement as the badly behaved children on television screamed and cried and threw things at their parents.

“Not all Englisch children are like that,” I said. “Honest.”

She looked doubtful. 

A few weeks later, Leah informed me that she would be bringing her three-year-old sister, Maria, with her while she cleaned. Her mother was going to go to a Tupperware party and thought it would be easier to not take Maria with her since she was also taking six-month-old Luke along. I didn’t expect Leah to get much done with Maria to care for, but I was wrong. Little sister was all big-eyed amazement at my non-Amish home. She sat quietly, gazed around, and played with a small toy the entire three hours she was here. Aside from taking her little sister to go potty, Leah didn’t miss a beat with her cleaning.

                The Amish people I’ve known seem to have developed a steady rhythm to their work. Male or female they know how to go at tasks with a steady pace that they can sustain for hours. Not only can they work steadily over many hours, they do so cheerfully. I think that might be because most Amish people are not raised to consider work punishment or drudgery. They are taught to see work as a gift from God.

                 Whether  washing windows, pulling weeds, wiping down cabinets, scrubbing floors, vacuuming carpet or any other myriad of tasks I give her, Leah does them all without complaint and she does them well.

She charges me so little, I always give her a bonus each week. This seems to worry her.

“But I took time out to eat lunch,” she would say. “And you have to come and pick me up. You should deduct something from my pay for that.”

I don’t, of course. After all, I’m competing against the draw of Amish newborn babies for her attention.

One other thing I can add to the list of Leah’s many accomplishments is that she also fills in as a substitute school teacher whenever one of the two Amish teachers are ill. When I found this out, I asked her if it was hard.

“No,” she answered. “It’s not hard at all. I enjoy it.”

This was a surprise. I have many friends who teach in the public schools. None of them say that the work isn’t hard.

“Do you ever have any discipline problems?” I asked.

“Not usually,” she said. “The children know if they give me any trouble their parents will hear about it and they will take care of it. Besides, the children like to learn, just like I did. I loved school.”    

So, getting back to how I was allowed to go into an Amish schoolhouse. It was Leah’s house cleaning  day with me a few weeks ago and after she finished, I was dropping her off at her house as usual. Just then, her younger siblings came running up the driveway from school carrying their lunch boxes. School had just let out and they were all excited about the upcoming yearly Christmas program at their school. They were chattering about how nervous they were to get up in front of people and recite their pieces for the program. 

“I’d love to see that,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll all do great.”  

I was not asking for an invitation, nor was I expecting one. It was nothing more than wishful thinking. I didn’t give my comment a second thought.

Emma, must have either found out what I had said from the children, or overhead the exchange, because a couple days later, she called (from the family’s phone shanty at the far end of the field where the family cow grazes) and invited me to her children’s Christmas program. There would actually be two programs, she explained.

One night was specifically for parents because the schoolhouse was hardly large enough to hold everyone who wanted to come. That night there would be presents and snacks and much social mingling afterward. However, I could come to the program they would have the day before. It was a dress rehearsal of sorts held in the middle of the day for other people who might want to see it.

I thanked Emma and told her that I could hardly wait.

As the time approached I dressed in my plainest clothes. Black slacks paired with a brown sweater and low shoes. I did not wear makeup nor any jewelry except my wedding ring. It is not that they would be offended if I dressed Englisch, but I have heard of some Amish children being frightened by strange Englisch women with their jangly jewelry and heavily applied makeup. I certainly did not want to scare the children.

My grown son, also curious, accompanied me. There were no other cars when we arrived, only one patient pony waiting to take its young owner home once school was over. 

The Amish try to build their school houses close enough together that the children can walk to school. The next one over was only about a mile away.

The school was built against a hill. The only entrance appeared to be a door leading into the basement. We looked on either side for a front door but couldn’t find one. I could hear children’s voices singing up above me and I didn’t want to miss a moment of the experience, so, feeling awkward and intrusive, we went in through the basement door.

One of the first things I noticed were a multitude of children’s hats and coats lining the concrete basement wall. There were plain wooden stairs directly in front of us. The stairs were steep, open, and there was no handrail.

Clinging to the side that was against the wall, I made it to the top. Unfortunately, the steps emptied out into the very front of the classroom where there were about fifteen children lined up singing a song I did not recognize. 

In spite of the singing, all eyes were upon us as we made our way to the back of the room. I felt like an elephant as I tried to tiptoe across the wooden floor directly in front of children. There were several open seats on the benches in the back of the room. Without realizing there was a girl’s side and a boy’s side until we’d taken our seats, my son and I sat down together on the girls’ side. He was uncomfortable with the situation but decided to stick it out rather than move and disrupt the program any more than we already had. 

I knew that men sat on one side and the women on the other during worship services, but this was the first I knew that Amish schools also separated the boys from the girls. 

There were approximately forty children in the room. The ones singing stood in front of the room in a sort of V arrangement. The older students were in the back and the younger ones in the front. Other children sat quietly on the benches in front of us. A few older siblings were there like us, observing. We were the only Englisch people in the room.

The benches were the same kind I’ve seen used during Amish worship. They were plain, hard, and backless. I wasn’t particularly concerned about having to sit on wooden benches but I did expect to only be there about half an hour. I was not factoring in the Amish ability to sit still and pay attention for very long periods of time.

The classroom was, indeed, one-room. It was about the size of a medium-sized classroom in our local Englisch school system. Downstairs, as I came through the basement, I had noticed little desks stacked against the walls. These desks had apparently been taken out to make room for the bench seating I later saw upstairs. The desks were just like the single-unit desks I used in school when I was a child. A wooden desktop attached to a seat under which there was an open box-like place to keep books. I’m guessing the desks were public school surplus.

Also in the basement, as we had passed though, I had been a little surprised to see a hockey type table game and a ping-pong table. When I asked Leah about it later she explained that these games were for rainy days when the children couldn’t play outside. She said there were also board games and card games set aside for rainy days as well.

The basement stairs that had surprised me because there were no handrails were apparently no challenge to the children who seemed perfectly comfortable racing up and down them between sets in their program. The two teachers also had no problem going up and down the stairs with the children. I guessed both of them to be in their mid-to-late 20s, even though it is not unheard of for Amish schoolteacher to be only a couple years older than her oldest students. 

The children at the Christmas program ranged from age six to fourteen. The children standing in front finished the first song and then one little boy about eight years old stood out from the group and welcomed us all with a poem he had memorized. 

To Be Continued…