We hadn’t seen our Amish friends since 2017 when we returned to see them on our second round the world trip. While we hadn’t seen other friends for some years on this trip, at least we had remained in touch via whatsapp video or other social media platforms. I did wonder whether we’d recognise our Amish friends as our only form of communication had been via letters and a couple of phone calls this week. And remember, that we have never taken a photo of them as per their beliefs and wishes.
We had planned our arrival to see them at the end of the working week so as not to interfere with their work or week end which is precious family time. We had not expected Brian to leave work early just for us. But Brian suggests we arrive at noon Friday and asks whether we’d like to go to the kids’ school that afternoon and give a short presentation. You can imagine how long it took us to decide!!! What an incredible opportunity to get to see, experience and learn a little more about the Amish way of life. Of course we would love to!
That Thursday evening, we set about finding somewhere that would print photos at short notice. All the office type of stores on our way to Indianna seem to have shut down. The US recession has been very noticeable to us as we’ve been driving for these past few days. Whole shopping centres closed and seemingly abandonned. Luckily we find a Staples that hasn’t shut down in Warsaw where we’re staying for a couple of nights. All we have to do is email Staples the photos, they email a code back which we present to Staples the next morning for them to download and print. I also wanted to find a map of the world and we find a great laminated one.
We know we were getting close when we drive by a field ploughed by tradional means with four workhorses pulling a threshing machine.
I am getting excited. Especially as until the night before when we spoke with our friends on the phone, I didn’t think I was going to be able to see them. I had picked up one of our godsons’ bug and I had been very unwell these last few days. We normally do a tag team when we present but the actual presentation will have to be given by Anthony this time – I can’t say two sentences without coughing fits. The odd thing is that I don’t have the sniffles or headache. Just razors in my swollen throat, coughing all the time and barely able to swallow. I did a Covid test and it was negative but I definitely did not want to pass this horrid bug to our friends. I had worn a mask all day long for days to make sure Anthony didn’t catch it and so far so good. Our friends were not concerned about my passing anything as they constantly had one or more child coughing and I was told I was certainly not to miss out on seeing them.
As we near our friends’ home, we see more and more horse drawn buggies. Life slows down and so do we. The country seems peaceful with flamboyant trees in all hues of yellow, orange and red. A carriage is parked in Brian and Edna’s driveway. It is all as we remember it. The garden is beautiful, well manicured, beds of flowers in full bloom. What makes the house look even more pristine is the lack of uggly power poles and cables to the house of course. We park our ridiculously large bright red Dodge near the carriage. I have mentioned in the past that I have not taken photos of our most memorable moments as I am too busy living them. Oh how I wish I had a photo of our red Dodge next to their horse and carriage! We laugh at the incongruity of our different forms of transport. The extreme is not lost on them either and laugh when they come out to greet us and give us the biggest heartfelt hugs. Our friends have not changed and we would have recognised them anywhere. Only the eldest of their 7 children, Amy and two youngest, Myron and Anthony whom we had not met yet, were at home when we arrived. At 15, Amy had recently graduated from Amish schooling and was now helping with home chores and looking after the younger ones. Edna’s mum Linda was there too – she had been helping prepare tonight’s feast.
After a brief catch up, David, Edna’s dad who was the first one of the family we met in 2015, arrives – he too has left work early for us. When we remarked that we certainly had not expected them to take time off for us, they told us it was normal as we’re family.
I make the most of the other kids being away at school to ask questions about the Amish education system. But first here’s a bit of background on Amish education: Amish schooling stops at the 8th grade. Because Amish society emphasises agriculture, craftmanship oriented or manual trades, they feel that formal education beyond the 8th grade can provide limited value. In May 1972, in the Wisconsin vs Yoder court case, the Supreme Court held that state laws requiring children to attend school until they are 16 violated the constitutional rights of the Amish to free exercise of religion. The Amish sincerely held to the belief that the values their children would learn at home would surpass the worldly knowledge taught in school. The Court contended that the Amish community was a very successful social unit in American society, a self-sufficient, law-abiding member of society, which paid all of the required taxes and rejected any type of public welfare and the Amish children, upon leaving the public school system, continued their education in the form of vocational training. Interestingly, compulsory education after elementary school was a recent movement that developed in the early 20th century in order to prevent child labor and keep children of certain ages in school. Since that court case in 1972, all states must grant the Old Order Amish the right to establish their own schools (should they choose) or to withdraw from public institutions after completing eighth grade. The decision specifically applied to Wisconsin, but it was written in terms broad enough to apply to all states that require attendance in public or private schools beyond the eighth grade.
I had so many questions regarding their education including what would happen if a child wanted to become a doctor. My understanding was that they would have to leave the community. The reason being that Amish kids would not be able to fulfill their learning due to higher education promoting ideas counter to Amish values and would therefore have difficulty integrating with other students. I wish we’d had more time to discuss this and how they approach evolution vs creationism but time had come for us to leave for school and we did not continue our discussion. It was interesting to learn that Amish students perform a similar test to other government schools at the end of year 8, (think Australia’s NAPLAN test), and they usually come out on par or better than the state average.
Both David and Brian have been extremely successful in their jobs and been able to support very large families, large in our eyes but normal to them, they have not suffered from leaving school at age 15 and getting apprenticeships. It makes me wonder why we keep hearing that so many Australian families cannot make ends meet, how they can’t afford child care, how the government needs to provide more support…
We all get ready to head off to school which Brian and Edna’s other 4 kids attend. Five of us pile into the carriage which Brian has hooked up to a horse faster than we had time to notice. Edna passes me a warm blanket to cover my legs as it is unseasonally cold here at the moment. We trot off past our ridiculously showy red Dodge.
An Amish schoolhouse is typically built on donated land and contains enough ground for a softball field, as well as playground equipment with Amish families maintaining and paying for the school house. The school board, made up of 2 or 3 Amish couples, helps to make decisions such as hiring and salaries for teachers with parents covering the school’s costs. Parents often visit the school, and each school has a guest book for visitors to sign. An Amish school typically holds 30 to 40 students with two teachers – when the number of school children grows beyond that, then a new school needs to be built. The school we’re going to was recently built by Brian and other family members.
The first thing that struck us when we walked into the classroom was how quiet it was. The large room was divided in two by a long curtain, the younger ones on one side, the older on the other. There were 2 teachers. The young lady teaching the little ones was in her early twenties and had been teaching for 5 years. The other teacher was a little older. With 5 years’ experience, she looked so at ease moving from child to child. Occasionally, a child or more might have their hand in the air to attract the teacher’s attention. No calling out “miss, miss!!”. Just a quiet hand in the air. As the teacher moved to one of the kids asking for help, the others flicked their little red flag attached to the side of their desk. So clever! On the other side of the room, the older students are sitting in a square facing each other and seem to be checking and marking each other’s work. Then they all get up, go to their desks, drop books, pick up others, clack clack as they slam their desks in unison before rushing back to the square for the next exercise.
At afternoon break time, on cue, all kids then rush outside – it is play time for 15’ before returning to the classroom for our short presentation. That’s when I notice the school visitors’ book which I duly complete. Sadly during playtime, Lucas gets injured and winded at softball and taken to the hospital emergency – all good luckily.
The presentation is a bit of a blurr as I am not well, I am unsettled by Lucas being injured and our time has been halved now so it’s going to be a rush. It was not our best presentation and only the parents sitting at the back of classroom asked questions. But what a priviledge to get an insight into Amish schooling. I would love another opportunity to talk to them again sometime and have a more interactive experience.
Back home, while Edna and Linda put the finishing touches to our feast and Brian is at the hospital with Lucas, David asks if we’d like to see his hobby. We pile into the Dodge and off we go to David’s home. His “man cave” is a serious woodworking studio, with all sorts of saws. What exquisite work. I have long said that I love ducks in all forms, I think they are the cutest animal and tastiest, whether confit or pâté. David’s wood carvings are exquisite – he has created so many stunning carved ducks, all to scale. The blue-winged teal catches my eye and David immediately offers it to me. But being made of untreated wood, I was worried our quarantine might have confiscated it. So my duck remains in David’s special studio.
Look at what David made in honour of every single one of his 46 grandchildren – a butterfly for the girls and frog for the boys.
Back at Brian and Edna’s, it is soon time for dinner. What a feast they all spent hours preparing for the 12 of us. Only the youngest child, 18 month old Anthony, leaves table early to play. Our conversation covers so many topics from travel to politics to current affairs to the economy. David reminisces about our first meeting back in 2015 and still does not understand what made him go to reception when he never had anything to do there and why we ended up meeting. Life works in mysterious ways… After dinner, the conversation continues in the lounge, again with all the kids present, interested and participating. We are told several times over the evening how we are part of their family, even telling us we would be invited to their family weddings whenever that may be.
Time has sadly come for us to leave, all of us wishing we had more time together and grateful that we have been able to share so much with open hearts in a non-judmental way. In a country that has become so polarised politically in recent years, it was refreshing to have such an open conversation where no subject is taboo and no judgement made on our obviously extremely different lives and beliefs. Before we leave, Eric presents Anthony with a pen he has made himself and Lydia, with whom I had shared private moments with admiring the sunset, gives me a macrame key ring. Such sweet gifts.
This is why we travel still, for the connections we make and the things we learn from others and how they open our minds.