By Virginia Sorensen
“Plain Girl” by Virginia Sorensen takes place in Pennsylvania Amish Country. Esther Lapp, a nine-year-old Amish girl, has been taught at home her whole life. When two men arrive one day to speak with her father, she learns of a compulsory school law that requires her to attend public school. Esther’s father, who is against public education, must choose to either send her to school or be arrested. He has already been arrested and fined three times (a while back) before finally allowing his elder son Daniel to go to the school. Esther overhears her father telling the two men that Amish people believe in the law, but not in a bad law that forces men to send their children to learn bad ways. Mr. Lapp concedes that it is not the teachers who are bad. It is only the children in the school who are so different. Their clothes and ways, so many unfamiliar things can put strange ideas into an Amish head. As Esther listens she thinks of her brother Dan who went to the public school. Dan has been gone for sometime, having left the Amish ways to explore the world around them. Esther knows her father blames the school for Daniel’s leaving. “In one week,” the men say before leaving, “school starts Esther feels sorry for her father who is obviously unhappy, but she is not the least bit sorry about school. Daniel loved school and she is excited to see all the wonderful things he told her about—books with colored pictures, bright crayons and chalk, paper to fold and cut, and the machine that can bring out music. These were all things the Amish did not believe in. They called themselves the “Plain People.” Esther knows that machines, cars, bright clothes, and lots of other “frivolous” things are not part of her culture and therefore forbidden. The Amish were farmers and their lives devoted to harvesting the land and studying their faith. Esther loves her life on the farm—her house with all its good smells, the beautiful woodlands, the huge barn and all the pleasant animals. The People were always alike in their simple clothes but she knew everyone by name and face. From behind one couldn’t be told from the other. All the yellow topped buggies lined up on the road to church on Sunday morning, or to a wedding in November, sometimes a funeral, are all signs of life, the only kind that Esther has ever known.
As the first day approaches Esther’s thoughts turn toward her absent, older brother Dan. Daniel was tall, strong, and full of laughter. When Dan began school his own world had widened and this peaked his interest. Once, while Esther was working in the fields with him, she caught him looking in the sky. When she asked if he was looking for mocking birds he laughed and told her, “ No Esther, of course not. Those birds live where it is always warm. The year round, in some places it is always warm. Can you imagine such a thing!” She couldn’t imagine it until he brought home a book from school and showed her. Then there was the time when Dan had referred to Sunday as the hardest workday of the week. She knew he meant when the meetings were held at their house and the benches had to be carried in and out and the tables set up. She had never thought of those things as work. Dan had never said that before. One day over a year ago, while she was walking home from a neighbor’s house, a car pulled up along side. She kept her eyes down until she heard someone say, “Hello Esther.” She looked up in surprise to see Dan pop his head out of the window. Dan told her that she could tell Father if she wanted to but, he had always wanted to know what riding in a car was like, now he knew. She hadn’t told Father. Remembering all this, Esther realizes that it was all part of the “trouble.” When a preacher at a meeting said never to make the First Step Away, she knew what it meant. After Dan left she understood that without the first step you could not make the second, third, or final step.
Daniel had left almost a year ago. He had gone to the fair by himself to show his horses. A man wasn’t allowed to be proud of himself, but he could be proud of his horses. Their neighbor had returned the horses with only a letter from Daniel. After Father had read the letter to himself, he walked into the house and placed it in the fire. Father had turned and said, “We will not speak of Daniel here again.” His name had not been mentioned after that.
The night before school begins Esther is told by her father that it is best to stay by herself. He continues explaining that she is expected to do as the teacher says, unless it is something she has been told never to do. She is not to look at the children.
The day finally arrives for Esther to go to school. Father will not allow her to ride the bus, so he must bring her in the traditional Amish way, by buggy. Esther receives all the things Dan has told her about-the colored paper, scissors, and books with lots of colored pictures. She listens to her father and keeps her eyes down to avoid the other children. After lunch the girl in front of her turns around and tells Esther that she’s glad to sit by her.
As the days go on Esther begins to feel more comfortable in school. One day Esther realizes that the other children are laughing at her when the girl in front of her turns around and tells her that she would never laugh at her. “I like you,” she states. “My name is Mary.” Mary is a pretty girl with blond hair, rosy skin, and beautiful colored dresses. Esther and Mary become fast friends. Mary teaches Esther how to play jacks and passes notes to her during the day. Esther struggles on a daily basis knowing that she is disobeying Father. She has so many questions that are unanswered; the only person she feels would understand is Dan. Esther prays for his safe return. Sooner than even she expected, her prayer is answered. The next day Esther is pulled aside by Sara, who has received a letter from Daniel. Sara and Dan were considered a couple and expected to marry before he left. Sara had remained “faithful” to Dan certain that he would return for her one day. Sara tells Esther that while at the farm sale a boy came over to her and handed her a letter. The letter told her that he was behind the barns if she could get away for a minute to speak with him. Dan told Sara that he wanted to see Esther. Sara explained to Dan that Esther was now going to school. Sara tells Esther that they must return to the house but that Dan will see her soon.
On Monday at recess a boy tells Esther that her brother is here and that he wants to talk with her. He looked so different with no bangs, short hair, and no hat. He even had three buttons on his coat! After Esther has spent some time crying on her big brother’s shoulder, she asks him if he is planning on returning home. Dan agrees that he would like to but only if it’s done in the right way. Although she is eager to find out where Dan has been for long, the bell rings and she has to leave. The next day though, Dan is back. He explains to Esther that while at the fair a man came up to him and offered him a job in the stables paying him a good salary. Knowing that Father would never allow such a thing, he decided to stay and send a letter home. With the money he earned he bought new clothes and an old car. There was more too. The owner of the stables had a pretty daughter with blond hair. When she went out with different boys besides him, he told her that he didn’t like it and she laughed at him. The girl told everyone what he had said and when Dan told her father that he had even kissed this girl, the owner asked if he expected his daughter to go steady with him. When Dan replied yes the man just laughed. That’s when Dan realized that things were too different with those people. After thinking about it, Dan wrote a letter to the owner and left. Once he was gone all he could think about was Sara. That’s when he decided to go to the farm sale and try to find her. Esther tells Dan that he should come home. If only his hair was long and he had the right clothes. Esther remembers that some of Dan’s old clothes are put away in a chest. Dan leaves telling Esther he will be back next week to talk to her again. For many weeks Dan came to the school to visit Esther during recess. His hair had started to grow but didn’t look long enough yet to come home.
Esther and Mary’s friendship continued to grow and Esther now had a pile of letters tucked away in her desk from Mary. Mary considered them to be “bosom friends.” Esther knew what “bosom friends” meant and even though she knew that Father had warned her against this, she chose to continue being friends with Mary and enjoying it. In the back of her mind however, Esther still feels unsure and one day tells Dan that she and Mary want to trade dresses just for one day. Dan looks very surprised but says to Esther that he will think about it and get back to her.
One night after planning with Dan, Esther sneaks out of bed and quietly takes the old clothes that once belonged to him out of the chest. Leaving the clothes in a predetermined spot Esther, her heart pounding so loudly she’s sure she’ll wake up her parents, hears Dan rustle about in the leaves and finally whisper, “I’ve got it.” Esther returns to her bed happy.
The next day Esther is surprised to see Sara sitting in the buggy by the school. When Father finally leaves, Sara urges Esther to get in the buggy. Once in the buggy, Sara tells Esther that Dan has spoken to her about Esther’s problem. Sara comforts Esther by telling her that she too has had a similar experience with a friend from the school. Now, her best friend from school lives in town and when Sara goes to market she stops to see her. At first Sara’s mother was very concerned, but saw that it wasn’t doing any harm. She adds that when she and Dan have their own house and farm Esther and Mary can go there and do as they please. Esther is very relieved and returns to school only to find Mary close to tears because her mother has put away the pretty pink dress that they were going to switch. Esther and Mary exchange notes and concludes that they can still be “bosom friends” without changing.
On Christmas Day right after Father has said the blessing there is a knock on the door. When Father answers it, there is Daniel. Esther’s mother rushes forward and embraces her son crying and telling Daniel that she has prayed for this day. Before entering Daniel turns to his father and asks permission to go in. With tears in his eyes, Father answers, “It’s Christmas, come in.”
The Amish Farm
The Amish are known to be some of the world’s best farmers. One reason for this is their selection of farmland. Most of their success lies in their belief that farming is a way of life. It is not a get rich quick scheme. Many Amish feel sorry for those who do not live on or close to the farmlands. For them the work is enjoyable and fulfilling. Hard work and lots of careful planning go into the farm. Amish farms are very rarely sold to non-Amish families. This provides stability for their community, knowing that the land is purchased forever. Another contributing factor to land stability is the nonexistence of divorce. There are very few cases, among the Amish, of couples divorcing.
Dairy herds are very popular as a means of fiscal security. Corn, alfalfa, and tobacco are also popular crops. The Amish have very few mechanized machines, relying mostly on horse pulled tractors and physical labor.
The Amish are not against education however, they are cautious about the influence and tone that the “progressive” schools may have on the Amish students. In 1972 the Supreme Court granted Amish and related groups the right to limit formal education to eight grades. The Amish objection to formal education beyond eighth grade is grounded in religious beliefs. “They object to the high school and higher education generally because the values it teaches are in marked variance with the Amish values and intellectual and scientific accomplishments, self-distinction, competitiveness, worldly success, and social life with other students.” The Amish do not integrate religion in the daily school curriculum. Each morning the Bible is read and the Lord’s Prayer is repeated in unison. The Amish believes that Bible instruction and interpretation belong only in church and at home.
Most Amish schools today resemble the old one-room schoolhouses of long ago. There is one room and a teacher for all eight grades. Many students walk to school and bring their lunch. Subjects include reading, writing, and arithmetic. The younger students learn by listening to the older students. Older students help the younger ones. Teachers are often young unmarried women. Occasionally the teacher will not be Amish, but only if that person is trusted by the parents. It is very unusual to find a married Amish woman with children at home acting as the regular teacher. The Amish community feels that a mother’s first priority is raising her family.
Parents are involved in the education of their children. Many times parents will arrived unannounced and their support is always available. There are board meetings held monthly to attend to any needs or particular problems. The school is supported by either a school tax approach or free-will offering.
Children are considered invaluable and are treated as such. Most families are large and children are looked upon as “a gift from the Lord.” Many babies are born at home. Hospitals are used too. The Amish have traditionally favored biblical names for their children. Children are taught many essential skills such as how to bake bread, plant crops, live without electricity, and care for the animals to name just a few. The Amish family is careful to ensure that children feel needed, wanted, and loved.
Young Amish men and women do not usually have a long engagement. Intention of marriage is made several weeks prior to the wedding. Almost all weddings take place after the harvest is finished in November or December. The wedding day begins as early as five o’clock in the morning and can go well into the night. Relatives, friends, and church members are invited. Tuesday or Thursday is considered a wedding day. As guests arrives they are greeted with a handshake from the bride and groom. The bride makes her own dress and the dresses of her two attendants. White is not used; dark colors such as navy, dark blue or purple are acceptable. The groom and his attendants wear a black suit, shoes, and hat. The church service is three to four hours in length. Male relatives of the groom begin traditional wedding hymns while the bride and groom are upstairs with the bishop and ministers who question them on their understanding of the seriousness of the faith and marriage. Afterwards the bride and groom resume their place near the minister’s row. They must answer three questions and then a special prayer is said. The rest of the day is spent eating, visiting, and singing.
In many Amish communities, the newlyweds will not set up their own house until late winter or spring. They will spend long weekends together and occasionally a week or two. Traditionally, the groom’s family will provide financial aid until they are self-sufficient.
The Amish do not believe in driving cars. They have observed that once a person does begin to drive, the quality of their life starts to deteriorate. A car in the family will ultimately divide the unit as fewer meals are taken as a whole family and visiting becomes obsolete. A larger concern for the car owner is the idea that nothing seems too big or far. “A machine the size of an automobile gives the owner a fantasy of power which is unnatural,” the Amish say.
The answer to this dilemma is the horse drawn buggy. There are about a hundred different variations of the buggy. The average buggy costs between two and three thousand dollars depending on the style and community. Weather is an important consideration when traveling by buggy. Some buggy styles are not closed in; some buggies are driven with open fronts; and others have no tops at all. These types require that the passengers wear heavy clothing, bring blankets, and umbrellas.
The typical color for a buggy is black. Some Amish communities drive grey-topped buggies while others may have yellow, yellow-brown, or white-topped buggies.
For the Amish, when someone is in need the whole community pitches in to help. Barnraising provides a perfect example of this community “ownership.” It is a terrible loss for the Amish farmer when his barn is reduced to nothing after a fire has ripped through it. Almost immediately the farmer has met with an Amish building contractor to draw up plans for a new barn. The barn is the largest, most expensive, and complicated building on the farm. Cleaning-up may take several days however, it is not uncommon for the neighbors to call a “clean-up day,” and gather together to assist those in need.
There is a lot of planning in order to build a barn in just one day. Both women and men participate. The large number of volunteer’s make this amazing endeavor a successful one. The women prepare enormous quantities of food. There are two snacks taken at the site of the barnraising. One at mid-morning and one at mid-afternoon. Most of the food is brought by friends and neighbors. The noon meal includes meat. potatoes, vegetables, and dessert.
Barnraising is not only hard work, almost always it provides friends and relatives a chance to visit and socialize.
Amish teens, like all other teens, go through years of difficult decision making. Many Amish teens must decide whether to stay and practice their beliefs or go and explore the world outside of their community. Amish teens have been known to be rowdy. Although drinking and “partying” are not accepted in the Amish household, many teens have exhibited rebellious behavior. Until a decision is made whether to leave or stay, the pressure increases. Many young Amish do leave, but many more choose to stay.
One of the toughest parts of the Amish way is shunning. “The Amish believe that if a member has violated his or her baptismal vows, fallen into sin, or gone against the rules and regulations of the group, and has refused the counsel and concern of the fellowship, that member must be excommunicated.” Once a member has been shunned it requires that all social and business dealings are ended. Shunning and the definition of shunning can vary from group to group. Some believe that shunning is for life while others feel that it should only last for a certain number of years. Leaders of the Amish world hope that shunning will assist the offender to repent his or her sins. However, often many times the severity of the punishment results in rejection of the Amish lifestyle altogether.
Death is an accepted part of the Amish life. The Amish explanation is summed up in the quote, “ The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away.” As customary for most things, the whole Amish community will assist with the preparations and burial of the deceased. As soon as the body is returned home from the embalming, the family member is prepared for burial. Almost all Amish funeral practices are the same. The funeral is held at home or in the barn of the deceased with neighbors and church members taking care of the service and meal. It costs less than half of a non-Amish funeral because the materials used are so simple.
A white cloth covers the face of the deceased until the end of the service. After the benediction, the undertaker removes the cloth and the Amish view the body while filing out. Pallbearers carry the coffin out to the hearse, which is a slightly larger buggy owned by the undertaker. The funeral procession goes to the cemetery where the relatives view the deceased one last time before the coffin is lowered into the ground. There is a brief service and then the grave is completely closed. Later, the family will place a simple, white, rounded tombstone with the dates of the deceased birth and death. Amish tradition requires that the female relatives wear black dresses in public. The time of mourning is one year for each parent, spouse, and sibling, six months of mourning for a grandparent or grandchild; three months for an aunt or uncle and six weeks for a cousin.