In 1957, I entered the 6th grade. It would be my last year at Maugansville Elementary School. The last year I would walk to school. My brother, two sisters and I all walked the two block to this school. When I attended, it was a 1st grade through 6th grade school. I was always aware of being one of the Mennonite kids. The Mennonite kids who came in from the farms and attended the Washington County churches may have been less socialized than I was in some ways, since I had grown up in the village. I may have been a little less backward, though we were clearly not like the non-Mennonites. We were not watching TV and exposed to popular culture. It was confusing to me as a child, were we better than non-Mennonites because of our piety or were we inferior because of our lack of sophistication? In my school class there was a real mix. There were the poor kids, the lower middle class kids, the local Maugansville kids, who were mostly lower middle class and a few Mennonite kids, mostly from farms. The only classes missing were upper middle class and wealthy. There were no rich kids in our region.
I was part of a small subgroup of Mennonite, non-farm kids who went to Pennsylvania Churches. As a male, I was generally less conspicuous. Mennonite girls wore their hair in a bun covered with a special “covering” and below the knees, 19th century-styled, homemade dresses with dark stockings. Mennonite boys just wore blue jeans or bib overalls and a long sleeved shirt. I was permitted to wear short sleeve shirts in warm weather.
Then there were the other more important divisions. Blue Birds, Red Birds and Yellow Birds based on learning ability. I could be wrong because my grades were never that great but I remember always being in the top group.
It may have been the 6th grade when my chair was moved directly in front of the teacher’s desk. I think teachers liked me in spite of my tendency to be disruptive. I was not so bad in class but I was hyperactive. Obviously, I was disruptive enough to be placed where the teacher could keep an eye on me.
Based on contemporary information, I think I had some attention deficit disorder, “ADD,” and obsessive compulsive disorder, “OCD.” I may have needed medication. I just assumed that I was misbehaving and I was aware that I was rebelling and compensating for the “Good Mennonite” typecasting. I was much older when I understood more about how I was effected by the disorders.
The public schools in Washington County, MD were experimenting with teaching a few classes through closed circuit TV “CCTV.” My parents sided with the more conservative Washington County Mennonites who asked that their children be exempted from seeing TV since we did not have TV in our homes. When the TV classes were being taught, all the Mennonite kids were excused and we paraded off to the cafeteria. I think I was aware of the narrowness of this and on some level knew that it was the content of commercial TV that our parents objected to and the objection ought not be the technology itself. One of the subjects taught on CCTV that year in 1957 was art. A man named Clyde Roberts taught art to all the county students on the CCTV system. In later years I became familiar with this man and his work. He was very traditional and based his teaching on specific drawing techniques and skills. That year another student and I were permitted to paint a large mural depicting the history of transportation. I was pleased and quite proud of it. It was painted as a timeline of horse and wagon, trains, cars, airplanes, and displayed for a short time on a hallway bulletin board. When it was taken down I asked the teacher if I could take it home. She said yes but added that she did not want to see it back at school. At least that’s the way I remember it. I don’t know what she meant by that but I took it as an insult. After that, I don’t remember actually taking it home or what became of it.
We would get a children’s newspaper at school called “The Weekly Reader.” One day we read about the “Sputnik” and there was the suggestion that the Russians would send a dog into outer space. I wrote a song with the help of a classmate. It was based on a song that was popular, by Patti Page, in 1953. Our version was called, “How Much is that Doggie in the Sputnik.” It was published in the Hagerstown newspaper.
I had two main friends. Neither were Mennonites so we were just school friends. The three of us started school together in first grade. Friend #1 dressed well and was somewhat middle class. He lived in Maugansville in a second floor apartment above his maternal Grandmother. His Mother was very pretty but I seldom saw his Dad. Friend #2 was from a poor family. He also lived in Maugansville. His father was an alcoholic and when he was sober I think he sold shoes door to door. Most of my focus in the sixth grade was on friend #2. While he did not dress well and was not always well-groomed, he had a commanding personality and I saw him as a leader. I was in his “crew.” We weren’t really bad but we were mischievous. We swore, circulated off-color jokes and rhymes. Once someone brought a “girly” magazine to school. I got to take it home overnight because I was “ok.” I was “in” and had the privileges that come with that.
Friend #1 was well-behaved. He talked about TV programs and characters that I knew nearly nothing about. Friend #2 may not have had a TV. He lived two blocks from me and I was never inside his house. A few times I was at friend #1’s house but my parents did not encourage friendships with non-Mennonite kids. At #1’s house I saw “American Bandstand” with host Dick Clark. It was awesome! It may have been the summer after sixth grade but I remember the song “Johnny B Goode” on American Bandstand. I’m not sure but it may have actually been performed by Chuck Berry or maybe it was just played as a dance number.
I do not have good memories of school. I was anxious and guarded. I don’t remember how I felt about being in the sixth grade, the last grade at Maugansville School. I knew all my friends would be going into Hagerstown to Jr. High the next year. The 7th grade would go to Woodland Way Junior High School for 7th and 8th grades. At some point that summer I learned that there was an old, two-room school being reopened as an alternative school for the Washington County Mennonites and that my parents had arranged for me to attend. They did not want me to go to the Hagerstown public school.
I consider the seventh and eighth grades as my “lost years.” Both were small two-room Mennonite schools designed primarily to protect children from the evils of society in the public culture. Neither school had art classes and there were limited art supplies. We did do some singing of hymns.
I went to the Reid Mennonite School for the seventh grade. While all of these students were Mennonite, I only knew a few as they were from the Washington County churches and had attended various public elementary schools. Though we attended a church that their bishop did not approve, for some reason, an exception was made for me and I was permitted to attend. Since I belonged to a Franklin County church, I had been exposed to a slightly more “liberal” tradition. This liberation manifested itself in subtle ways. WC Mennonites all drove black cars. FC Mennonites’ cars were not all black. While FC Mennonites did not have TVs at that time, many did have radios. WC Mennonites did not have radios. There was a small but important difference in the way women dressed. FC Mennonites women’s skirts were not quite as long, the ‘coverings” were a little smaller and if they attached ribbons to the sides they did not tie them under their chins and the color of the ribbons was usually white and not black. The FC Mennonite men did not wear the black hats and while they did have the collar removed from their coats, the WC Mennonites wore “frock coats” which were an old-fashioned cut that had a lower section below the waist line. In the twentieth century, the Mennonites that we knew in Maryland and Pennsylvania placed a lot of emphasis on the separation from “the world” and “worldly things” It was important to demonstrate that separation by dressing and participating in a lifestyle that made you appear peculiar (1 Peter 2:9 King James Version.). In fact, the word “peculiar” became a badge of honor, probably meaning exclusive but also implying, odd and strange. For some, I think there was competition as to who could best uphold the rules and rituals and appear most peculiar.
It was the first year for the Reid Mennonite School. An old abandoned, two-room schoolhouse was being spruced up to start a new, Christian school. It would be for students up to the age of sixteen when most WC Mennonites would leave school. The other students knew that I was from that different church group and once again that made me different from the norm. To some students I was out of my place and did not belong, while to others I was immediately interesting and sort of popular. This put me in conflict with guys who were already popular within their group. I felt both outside the immediate group and inside since we were at least now all Mennonites.
Our teacher’s name was Brother Ebersole. He was imported from another area. I think he may have come from the Lancaster County area. He seemed very old and I don’t know if he had any teaching training or qualifications, however he must have had some teaching experience. He wore a black suit, cut in the Mennonite style, buttoned all the way to his neck and a stern face. We were generally well-behaved in class. I don’t recall learning anything or doing any special projects all year.
One day a girl sneaked a book in to school from home. It was a medical book of some sort. It had a few explicit pictures of male and female body parts. I believe she was able to sneak the book from the library of a family friend who was a doctor. I remember having the opportunity to glance at a few of the pictures in the anteroom. I was especially impressed by the photograph of a childbirth. At the time it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity to see what an actual childbirth looked like! Somehow, we avoided getting caught as the book would have been considered highly inappropriate.
Since we did not go to the same churches as the other students, I did not spend any time with them socially outside of the school day.
One day during recess I got into a wrestling match with another student. I was strong but he was bigger and stronger than me. We were in the school basement, which was an area for students to congregate when it rained or during the cold winter months. I don’t recall how it started but it seemed that we were in some way rivals. Though he was beating me, I would not give up. When recess time was over and it was time to go back to class, Brother Ebersole would come to the door and ring a hand bell. When he came and rang the bell that day, the students who were watching us went to class. I remember the sound of the bell as Brother Ebersole stood next to us and continued the ringing! After a while, he just left and went to start the classes. I guess I finally gave up whenever he had me in a hold that prevented me from breathing or maybe I was just too exhausted. Maybe I just lost interest after the audience left. I don’t remember the rest of the day but it seems like we just went back to class. That student’s family owned a feed supply and grain storage business which I think he inherited. He was, in adult life, quite successful in business.
Brother Ebersole did come visit my Daddy on one occasion. There was a very handsome and popular older student who had a discrete crush on a pretty girl. They were whispered about and I guess they were teased in a good-natured way. During class one day I drew a cartoon of the two of them kissing. I had them labeled with some kind of caption which I do not recall. Just as I finished the little art project and started passing it around, Brother Ebersole snatched it up. He was not amused. That evening he came to talk with Daddy. Since Daddy spent his time in the store next door to our house, they discussed the situation in Daddy’s office. Brother Ebersole showed the picture, I assume, as an example of my filthy mind and general tendency toward distracting my classmates. While Daddy did not compliment my drawing skill, he did not punish me. In fact, I remember him sort of smiling about it all. I think he considered it to be trivial.
I remember one day, it must have been spring, when I imagined being able to catch a bee and let it sting me near my eye so that I could be dismissed from school and go home before the end of the school day and maybe be able to stay home the next day. I must have been very unhappy!
I rode a bus to and from school. It was an old bus that had been retired from the public school. It was driven by Noah Martin, the father of the man to become my brother-in-law, Galen Martin. The bus became nicknamed “Noah’s Ark.” I don’t know if it occurred to us that it implied that we were animals!
That school was only in existence that one year. By the beginning of the next school year the Washington County Mennonites had built a new school. I was not permitted to go to the new school. I think they decided on a policy to only accept students from their own congregations. I know they spoke to Daddy but he did not give me the details. At the time I assumed the real reason was that they thought I was a bad influence on their “good” children. I knew that was a joke because their “good” children were not saints in my opinion!
The next year I attended a similar two-room, Mennonite school in Lititz, PA. These Mennonites were more similar to the churches we attended. These “good” Mennonite kids were not saints either!
Hess Mennonite Christian School, Lititz, PA, hired my sister Gerri to teach first through fourth grades in their two-room school. I suppose Daddy thought it would be a good next step for me to go from seventh grade at the local two room Mennonite school to another two-room Mennonite school for the 8th grade. As a side benefit, whether they admitted it to themselves, it made life easier for them to have me living away five days a week during that year. Mother still suffered from depression. She had been in treatment and had even been institutionalized for electroconvulsive shock therapy a few times at this point. The Mennonites we knew tended to believe the church and “right living” were the best answer to mental illness. It wasn’t working for Mother. She continued to have periods of severe depression.
This year away from home may be another reason I have limited memories of Dick. I was away from home during the week and we were going to different schools. It also occurs to me that he may have been spending some time back with his parents and siblings.
Every Monday morning at 5 AM, Gerri and I left Hagerstown with several students who were going to Lancaster Mennonite School, a boarding high school. Gerri drove the 1957 Ford station wagon that Daddy had bought. It had been factory painted red and white. Daddy had it repainted charcoal gray. I liked it red but happy that he didn’t choose black. We would drop student off at LMS and drive on to the Hess Mennonite School near Lititz, PA. The trip was about 120 miles and took almost three hours.
Gerri taught the first through fourth grades in one room and I attended 8th grade in the second room with about thirty fifth though eighth grade students. The parents from the local churches supporting the school had purchased a small, aging mobile home for Gerri, that we shared from Monday through Friday. After school on Friday afternoon, we reversed the Monday morning trip. Every week throughout that school year we maintained that schedule. In retrospect, I don’t understand how Gerri managed such a grueling schedule given what I now know about what it takes to be a teacher. She was teaching four grades in one room!
I was once again, the outsider. The new guy breaking in to a well-established social order. The leaders were two brothers who’s father had a successful business. It took me until January to break through and become their “friend.” Before that, my school days were damn near intolerable.
I liked being away from home and living with Gerri. I don’t think she was ever critical, unkind, or impatient. It seemed like we were having an adventure! I felt liberated and Gerri was intellectually stimulating for me and while she was busy doing all the work teachers do, we had meals together and listened to the radio. The trailer was parked beside the school and I had the school grounds and the local countryside to explore. I took long bike rides and played on the swing sets. Once in the evening when I was playing alone on the swing set, I stood and started pumping higher and higher. I was suddenly swinging so high that the chain would slack and the swing would free-fall and jerk at the bottom. I kept challenging myself to go higher until I woke up on the ground without a memory of falling. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. There was a cement floor basement under the school where I spent many hours rollerskating. I circled around and around at higher and higher speeds. After I got bored with that I taught myself to do it backwards. Soon I was flying around at equal ease forward and backward. This was accomplished on those clamp and strap on, metal wheel, old time skates. I was awesome! I somehow acquired an old bike. I took it apart and painted it white and reassembled it. I don’t know where I got the paint but it never dried properly and I remember getting white paint on my clothes every time I rode it. We were in the country and there were no close neighbors. I had no playmates and it seemed that I liked the solitude. I just did not like the abuse I got during the school day in the first half of the year.
Once I rode my bike a couple of miles into Lititz. I stopped at a stop sign in a residential area. There were several boys a block or two ahead hanging out with their bikes. Suddenly, they got on their bikes and started riding toward me. I was terrified and my impulse was to run. I turned my bike around and pedaled as fast as I could. After a while, I looked back and there was no one chasing me. It did not occur to me that they could have been friendly.
On weekends when we went home, I was back at our church with my friends, the guys and girls I had grown up with, the church kids who shared my religious history. I was also the Maugansville born, Mennonite kid, whose parents owed the grocery and general merchandise store. Everyone knew me. I had gone through the local elementary school. I was the little boy who had been delivering the daily paper from one end to the other on Main Street and helping in the family store every day. It was reassuring to come home on the weekends where I had my identity.
Mother and Daddy noticed that I was picking up the Pennsylvania Dutch accent. I deliberately made it more pronounced because I liked the attention. I dreaded going back on Monday mornings. Del Martin was one of the LMS commuters. I remember sitting in the way back seat and he taught me about “punch buggies.” After that, we would punch each other when we saw a Volkswagen beetle. I guess many mornings I slept for most of the trip. Of course, the Lancaster Mennonite High School kids were several years older than me but on a few occasions I remember going there in the evening and having fun hanging out in the dorm with the guys that I knew from back home. For some reason, it never occurred to me to ask my parents to send me there for high school.
I hated the Hess Mennonite School. I was miserable. The students were out of control. The year started with one teacher who was an older man. He was gone by Thanksgiving. He had no concept of classroom management. On Friday afternoon, we had something resembling “show and tell.” One student decided that it would be fun if we all jumped out the windows. I don’t remember if I participated but I do remember thinking that this is very wrong! I had the same feeling when we had a traditional, “Fruit Roll.” Students brought fruit to school as a gift for the teacher. It became a literal fruit rolling event when students started rolling fruit in the aisles which then became throwing fruit. Sometimes on Monday mornings, a student would turn to me and say, “Why did you come back?” I got into a schoolyard fight with another kid. It was brutal. I came out of it with bruises and torn clothes. I was always aware of my sister teaching next door and I was sensitive to unkind statements students would make about the teachers, especially if it was about her!
Since our trailer home was on the school grounds, I sometimes took a short break at lunch period and went into the trailer. School was so miserable this would be a little reprise. It did not occur to me that my classmates might resent this. I don’t know if they did resent it, but in retrospect I can see how they may have. Whatever the motivation, one day at lunch when I went to the trailer, some of the boys took a chain from the swing set and wrapped it around the door handles. The trailer had two doors, one going into the main kitchen/sitting area and one into the bedroom. It was easy to wrap the chain from one door handle to the other, making it impossible for me to get out. It was a humiliating and depressing incident! I don’t think that little trailer even had a phone. As I recall, one of the younger kids eventually ran in and told my sister and she came and rescued me!
After Thanksgiving, a temporary replacement teacher was found. The replacement was much younger and he did a better job of managing the classroom, but it was a struggle, partly because a pattern of disorder had been established and partly because there were four classes in the room, which meant he needed to divide his attention. Students in each class had a lot of opportunity to talk and generally misbehave. His replacement came after Christmas. She was a mature woman with a strict German sensibility. She had a sharp voice and laser eyes. Her mission was to whip us into shape and she was fairly successful. There was no more jumping out the windows. She was there for the rest of the year.
It was around this time that I became accepted and was invited to visit the the two popular brothers for the weekend. I was still resentful of how I had been treated but this felt so much better. I went with it and began to enjoy my new position. I suddenly had a girlfriend who was pretty and popular with her peers. One day during lunch, my new friends and I paired up with some girls and went into the woods behind the school. It was pretty exciting. The woods was off limits and I guess it didn’t occur to us that we would be missed. The teacher caught us hanging out with the girls. Since we were not strictly being “naughty,” we were just sent back to the schoolyard and the whole thing was ignored. To my relief, I don’t think my sister was even told of my participation. Sometimes, curiosity overrules caution. On the subject of curiosity, some girls naturally seem to understand what goes on inside a guy’s head and are willing to accommodate, no questions asked. One morning a note was passed to me stating that a female classmate was willing to do a little show for a few of us in the basement during lunch recess. This is a prime example of curiosity winning out over caution. While it was not part of the curriculum, it was a definite education in female anatomy. Fortunately, this activity remained undiscovered by the two teachers at the school, one of course being my sister.
Toward the end of the year our teacher decided that we would learn to sing a contemporary spiritual song in four part harmony. We must have worked on that song for hours! It has been imprinted on my brain now for almost sixty years. It may have impressed me partly because it created a new image of God. My religious education had focused on a “God of Judgement.” This song presented God as a casual friend. Over and over we sang, “My God and I go in the field together; We walk and talk as good friends should and do; We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter.” She got so frustrated because she told us we should be able to do better with the harmony. I guess we sounded terrible but I liked the words.
When the year was over I was looking forward to leaving that school. The kids that had treated me so poorly, I had won over but were not really my friends. I was not fully aware of resentment but I had no desire to stay in touch with any of them. Lancaster County Mennonites in the late fifties were a tight society like many Mennonite communities. Years later, I would leave the Mennonites that I grew up with and I found friends in the “fashionable” world.
Over the years, many Mennonites have become political and some have joined the evangelical Christians in conservative politics. I find this surprising because it does not square with my understanding of the teachings of Jesus. That is one of the reasons I am happy to have left the church over forty years ago.