Frankly, I was a bit leery of taking up a country school hardship story, given that I have both lived that reality and read about it often.
But happily, Yoder School is not centrally about the three-room school where Phyllis Miller Swartz began her education in the Appalachian Mountains of western Maryland as a plain Mennonite girl in a white cap, a dress and brown tights alongside the Amish and Beachy kids.
At its heart, this memoir is about Yoder School as idyll or polestar, as Shirley Hershey Showalter says in her foreword. Yoder School stands as a beacon, reference point, sanctuary of innocence and symbol of the heart’s true calling against which all theology and education must be measured.
At Yoder School, Phyllis Miller fell in love with nature and the beautiful universe, the life of the mind, problem solving, field study and the illumination of what we may never take for granted as learners.
Because of the brilliance of a teacher named Alvina, she felt a calling to teach students rather than subject matter. She watched a master teacher teach humbly and learn from each of her students. To be Alvina was all Phyllis would ever desire.
The young Phyllis agonizes over the theological concept of demütig, or humility. This core Mennonite tenet will help a sensitive and intellectual girl growing up in the turmoil of the 1960s become a fine, intuitive teacher. But it will not make her developing womanhood easy.
Phyllis is jolted out of her idyllic existence when her parents move to the Rust Belt city of Flint, Mich., to serve a Mennonite mission church. There she attends public schools: South Bendle Elementary, T.N. Lamb Junior High School and Bendle High School.
Finally, in her senior year, back among Mennonites at Lancaster Mennonite High School in Pennsylvania, she finds, ironically, that her lower-class status among affluent Mennonite kids makes her as much an outsider as she had been at Bendle High.
By her senior year she has met the love of her life, Steve Swartz. Their journey as a devoted couple of Plain Mennonites determined to secure college educations, though married out of high school and soon with two babies, provides the subplot to the overarching story of the writer following her calling to teach.
The first chapter contains the book’s most lyrical writing — a paean to Yoder School, which “felt to me like the wild beauty of the night garden lit by stars.”
In Michigan, her Mennonite identity is stretched by her classmates and her reading. She knows she has come to the end of childhood: “I felt as if junior high had carved part of me away.”
In high school she feels a typical teenager’s need to belong while holding on to her roots. As a peacemaker, she confronts violence among her peers and her teachers but gains acceptance for her genuineness and integrity.
Her teachers are drawn to her intellect, sensibility and work ethic. The fashion of the times, the maxi skirt, lessens the distance between herself and her high school peers. Her Mennonite plain clothes stand out less in these times.
Yet, “I felt verhudeld — confused in my mind. Orwell had sucked the innocence away, and I would never see the world the same way again. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a grown-up, never-ending version of a bomb drill at Yoder School.” After a visit to see Yoder friends she feels torn: “This is what verhudeld me: Did I have two places? Or no place at all?”
In Lancaster she finds herself at last among her own people but still “looking in.” Yes, she could relax with these Mennonites, but the peer pressure to have things, to engage in social activities that required money she did not have, was stressful. Her teachers saved her, both with the challenges and ideas of the classroom as well as their interest in her as a person. The sociograms she learns from one of her teachers, Mr. Dietz, clarify her thinking as she learns to apply theory to self-understanding: “Was I an isolate or a star?” Much of the rest of the book details her making sense of classroom learning in the experiences of life.
The turn in the book comes with her marriage and a swerve from her calling in order to be practical and realistic by accepting, in all humility, training as a licensed practical nurse. She almost loses herself.
“Diapers and Descartes” is a harrowing chapter as the young couple struggles financially to stay in college while married with children. Here is painful and poignant writing as the pregnant Phyllis eats the venison her uncle has given them, which her husband leaves for her while he subsists on cornmeal.
Together they learn, as a couple of Plain Mennonites, what it will take to live in society: wedding rings, for example, when a fellow college student hits on her, not knowing she is married.
Failures stand to bring them down financially: losing the bees her resourceful husband keeps for their subsistence living arranged around both of them studying at Mott Community College in Flint, or finding that someone has stolen their car.
The last two chapters arrive at the writer’s destiny of engaging students at the margins through the work she and her husband took at a home for displaced kids and her master’s degree program at Ohio State University. There is a “come to Jesus” moment when she contracts a case of shingles and moves into solitary meditation and eventual epiphany: to “share Alvina’s treasure” with kids at the group home — “to provide a place of strong love, a sanctuary for learning.”
Phyllis Miller Swartz would go on to teach students from preschool to college and beyond, including inmates on death row.
Her writing is beautiful, detailed and lyrical, with poignant passages of deep longing to be fully alive in this world.
Undergirding the story is the sustaining power of bedrock Mennonite imprinting: trying to live with integrity, to love the world and all its people while maintaining the core of one’s true self. It is a beautiful study of the basic human desire to belong and the self-recognitions that come with learning to engage and love people beyond your own.
Raylene Hinz-Penner is a writer and lecturer emerita at Washburn University and a member of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kan.