Amish schoolhouses have always fascinated me. The one-room simplicity turns the gears of learning in the most elementary ways. The schools are throwbacks to the old days of blackboard basics, rigorous reading, and multiplication tables.
Mahlon Miller, 31, is an organic farmer and teacher in a one-room school-house in northern Indiana. He is married with four daughters. Northern Indiana’s Amish population is the third largest in the world. And since the Supreme Court upheld the Amish parochial educational system in 1972’s landmark Yoder vs. Wisconsin case the number of “one-room” schools has soared. In 1969 there were 20 such schools in northern Indiana, according to Mahlon. Now there are 80. Mahlon’s school, like most, houses first through 8th graders.
The photo that appears here is of the inside of Mahlon’s schoolhouse. Some of you may wonder what the little blue containers are hanging from the desk. Made of fabric, a local Amish woman stitches them. They are used as mini trash receptacles for the students. Kind of clever. Next week, I’ll share a video tour of Mahlon’s school. This column, which we are calling “Teacher Mahlon” (it is what his students call him) is running on a trial basis and will appear each Friday. After a few weeks, if you like what you are reading, we’ll try to keep it! I’m really excited about getting to know Mahlon and to read his perspective as an Amish male. He’ll mainly write about school, but occasionally he’ll veer into a variety of topics including home-life and organic farming. So, without additional delay, I introduce you to Teacher Mahlon.
By Mahlon Miller
“Don’t you think Allen could get along all right without you?”
The question caught me off guard. A group of us men had moved some church benches outside into the shade of a maple and were seated in a circle visiting. It was Sunday afternoon in late June of 2009. Earlier that year I had quit my construction job to enter a partnership selling grass fed meats. By late June it was becoming obvious that the partnership wouldn’t work out and I was thinking about casting around for a job again. It was a rare June day with sunny skies and mild breezes. We had just come away from a Sunday worship service and the job market was the last thing on my mind. “Yes,” I answered, “I’m pretty sure he could. “
“ A couple of us have got something in mind that you might be able to help us out with,” continued my neighbor Ferman. “Perhaps we could come down and talk about it one evening next week?”
I agreed to that and on Tuesday night, Ferman showed up with the other two school board members and asked if I would consider teaching. I didn’t consider myself a teacher, but since I needed a job and since the opportunity practically tore the door off the hinges I decided to try it for one term. I was naïve enough to think I would stop then and go back to higher paying jobs. Now four school terms later I’m learning that teaching school is not something you just do from 8:30 to 3 p.m. and from late August to the first of May and then walk away. In fact, teaching school is something you never walk away from. At other jobs you rub elbows with your coworkers. At teaching you rub souls with your students and if you can come away unscathed you haven’t been teaching.
Last Saturday I graduated my fifth graders. Hard to believe that it has been four years now. My first graders are now in the fifth grade and those little second graders are now sixth graders. It has been a happy, harried, relaxing, nerve-racking, frustrating, rewarding and humbling four years. I will never be the same.
Perhaps the biggest change in me has been my writing. I’ve always enjoyed reading, languages and communication, especially writing. But after a couple of years of teaching grammar and composition I have changed my view slightly. I used to think writing was soothing and relaxing like horseback riding or canoeing. But I have come to realize it is not. It is more like bull-riding or whitewater rafting. It is hard work and you do it for the challenge, the struggle, and the sweet sense of victory you feel when that last stubborn verb is in place and all of those uncooperative phrases and clauses settle down and say what you wanted them to say. My hope in writing this column is that it will give me a weekly challenge, hone my writing skills, make me a better grammar teacher, and perhaps eventually pay a part of our grocery bill.
I wrote this poem for this year’s graduation. Hope you all enjoy it. I wrote it on the bulletin board. (Editor’s Note: The poem is about three students who are graduating this year…these are their first names, Fern is Edna’s middle name)
LaWayne, Lorene and Edna Fern
Four years ago I came to school, one bright September day
A nervous first year teacher then with nothing much to say
I mispronounced a lot of words and oft my cheeks would burn
Twas all forgiven promptly by Lawayne, Lorene, and Edna Fern
They read and wrote and figured out each lesson I assigned
And with my fumbling, bumbling ways they were extremely kind
I taught them basic grammar rules but found out I had to learn
The basic rules for living from Lawayne, Lorene and Edna Fern
I taught them metric measurements an area of a square
They taught me to be cheerful and the value of a prayer
I taught the lines of latitude and how the planets turn
I learned respect for others from
Lawayne, Lorene and Edna Fern
In health I taught about the cells and how our bodies grow
They learned it fast and easily but I was rather slow.
Repeatedly I failed my tests. It seems I can’t discern the lessons taught so often by
Lawayne, Lorene and Edna Fern
With roses and diplomas now they are standing in a row.
Their shiny shoes and brand new suits and faces all a glow.
They’re at the end of school age years, the lessons all are learned .
Today I have to graduate Lawayne, Lorene and Edna Fern
Today they leave the classroom scene, the wider world to try.
A lump of sad sticks in my throat, a teardrop in my eye.
My mem’ries are of precious times, that never will return.
May all the world be nice to my Lawayne, Lorene, and Edna Fern.