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English with the Amish

This is an account of a teacher training I gave to a group of about 40 Amish schoolteachers in Arthur, Illinois, on August 7, 2013. It’s not about words per se, and it may not be every reader’s cup of tea, but I expect many will appreciate reading it.

I spent my day in a two-room schoolhouse: grades 1-4 meet in one room, and grades 5-8 meet in the other. When I arrived at the Railside School, I pulled my car into the gravel lot next to about a dozen black buggies — only one had a horse still attached, and the rest of the horses were in the barn. Along the fence stood about 20 bicycles. I had had the air conditioning on in the car, and the radio playing. Once I shut off the engine and opened the car door, a flood of sound rushed in: “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” The Amish were singing hymns. In the middle of the country, all green tapestry and tall blue skies, it seemed a fitting soundtrack. One of the teachers, Larry, walked out to the car to meet me, and offered to carry my things. He told me there would be one brief speaker on another topic before my afternoon of spelling.

We walked into the meeting room on the side of the schoolhouse, and he rejoined the other men at the front of the room, gesturing to an empty folding chair he’d set up for me at the end of one wooden bench in the back. I took my seat. Several women also stood around the back of the room. They continued to sing, now another hymn, and the young woman to my left held out her photocopied program for me to follow along. “It’s a little hard to read,” she whispered. The song was familiar, its cadence slower. The Amish sang every verse and chorus, each one started by a lone female voice, then joined in a great and heavy swell of harmonies. The sound itself moved me physically as well as emotionally, vibrating in my heart and lungs and throat.

After the second hymn, a young man, maybe 32 or 34, got up to speak. He had the familiar bowl-shaped haircut, and a narrow beard just around the bottom of his jawline, but not on his face. His first words struck me as humble and generous: “I’m not a gifted English speaker,” he said, “but I don’t want to speak in German if not everyone can understand me.” I was the only English person in the room — everyone else there spoke Dietsch. He went on to explain that he had been asked to address discipline in the classroom. He said he had written several other people asking for their counsel, so the message he had to give was not his alone. He cautioned teachers to work for the glory of God, not for their own self-glorification as teachers. He suggested approaching discipline as an issue that’s for the good of the *school* and the good of the *community* rather than just the good of the individual *child.* He stressed the importance of relationships with God and each other, and suggested that adults cannot successfully discipline children if we ourselves are undisciplined and unwilling to be disciplined. He delicately handled delicate issues like spanking and disagreements with parents, and discussed his own experience as a parent with great humility and great respect for the teachers before him. He encouraged teachers to try to understand how children think and perceive things, and to always remember to put others first. He made me wonder what a gifted speaker of English would sound like, for it was a gift to me to hear him.

As he spoke, I looked around the room. I noticed plain clothes, but not just black or grey. Shades of blue, green, muted purple, even maroon, clothed women and men alike. I noticed some women’s belts were held together with pins rather than with stitches — if I were Amish, that would be me. This morning, I had agonized over footwear, wondering whether strappy flat sandals would be out of place in a world of black stockings and black gym shoes. I almost laughed aloud when I noticed that most of the people in the room were barefoot. “Hmm, they must leave their shoes at the door,” I thought. As I left later, though, I noticed that there were no shoes to be seen, and indeed, I saw women fetch horses from the barn and hitch them to the buggies, all while unshod. Young men and women also rode off on their bikes, shoeless feet on the pedal spikes. Every woman wore a white bonnet, and several black outer bonnets sat on the cubbies in the hallway. A single gas light protruded from the wall, and a large gas heater sat against the wall inside a metal cage.

After a short break (and a long line for the bathrooms), it was my turn. There were a few familiar faces in the crowd, Martha and Raymond and Larry, and a few whose names I didn’t yet know. As on Friday, the group started out quiet and reticent, but eventually began to ask questions, or venture answers to mine, and to laugh at the silly things I say about spelling, the exaggerated pronunciations, the reasons a child spells ‘tree’ as ‘chree’ or ‘three’ as ‘free’. A few minutes into my talk, I noticed that they had turned on a fan and pointed it at me, a gracious gesture for a pampered, air-conditioned person. It only dawned on me later that the fan was battery-operated, and they chuckled when I confessed my curiosity about an un-plugged-in electric fan.

The thing that made them laugh the hardest was when we were studying word families where ‘f’ and ‘ve’ alternate, in noun/verb pairs like belief/believe or thief/thieve, and in singular/plural noun pairs, as in leaf/leaves. I suggested that while we don’t think of ‘wive’ as a word, if I attempted to use it as a verb — “He plans to wive that woman on Sunday” — there would be no doubt as to the man’s intentions. Well apparently that really tickled the old Amish funny bone.

After about two and a half hours, our time was up. I explained that I work with teachers and students all over the world, and welcome questions, because that’s how I continue to learn. Now, most people email me, but I gave the Amish folks my mailing address, and encouraged them to send me questions or things they get stuck on in their teaching. Two gentlemen from Salem, Indiana, who sit on the Amish school board, approached and asked for my phone number, as they’d like to have me come there one of these days.

The day ended with two more hymns, “I Want to Be a Blessing to Someone Today,” and “We Shall Meet Again.”  The words to both were so beautiful I asked for a copy of the program. I had noticed earlier that besides the music and the agenda, it was full of Amish gnomes like “It’s smart to pick friends, but not to pieces” and “People who sling mud, lose ground” and “Train a child the way he should go, and walk there yourself.”

As they sang their final hymn, this time led by the sweet soprano of the woman to my left, I thought about all the remarkable cultural experiences I’ve had over my lifetime, and how they’ve underscored our samenesses rather than our differences. Growing up in California with friends of many ethnic and national backgrounds, traveling in Europe and South America, witnessing folk dances and family dinners in foreign lands, living on both coasts of this country, in big cities and in small towns, being welcomed by a small Mennonite church in the Middle West as one of their own, and today, sitting in a two-room schoolhouse by the railroad, I can barely comprehend the breadth and the depth of this life.

Still lifted by the lush and extravagant sound of the Amish schoolteachers’ voices, I hope that the promise of their words will prove to be true:

“What a glorious thought as we say good-bye,
We shall meet, (we shall meet) someday.
In that beautiful home that’s prepared on high,
We shall meet, (we shall meet) someday.”

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