Amish School: No Precedent for Shocking Tragedy

Melissa Block talks with Professor Mark Dewalt of Winthrop University in South Carolina. Dewalt, who has studied one-room schoolhouses and Amish education in the United States and Canada for 20 years, has just finished a book on Amish education. For his research, he spent time in the schoolhouses of Lancaster County, Penn. He says that Monday's shooting is an unprecedented and shocking tragedy for the community.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There are some 350 Amish schools across Pennsylvania and Professor Mark Dewalt has spent a lot of time in those one room Amish schoolhouses for a book he wrote on Amish education. He describes the schools as happy places.

Dr. MARK DEWALT (Winthrop University): An Amish school really looks like a public one room school from 1910, perhaps. There are desks in rows. The teacher has a desk up front. There'll be a chalkboard at the front of the room. There'll be no electrical equipment at all. There'll be no lights. So in lots of schools, the sunshine is light for the day.

You have eight grades with one teacher. So essentially what happens in the morning is before school the children will play outside and the teacher will ring the bell and then they come in. The teacher will take attendance. She or he will probably read a chapter from the Bible, although they won't discuss it, and then the children will stand up front to sing maybe two or three songs. Some of those will be in German, some in English.

And immediately after that, when the students return to their seat, everyone gets busy. And you will hear - the Amish inside a building are usually very soft spoken, so if you're sitting in the back of the room and the teacher's working with students up front, sometimes it's really hard to hear what's going on.

The school is usually in a rural place, and since it's so quiet, you can actually hear what's going on outside. If it's window or if there's cows in the field next door, you'll hear them munching on grass or straw.

BLOCK: Is there a reason that they keep the schools small? That they want to have a one room schoolhouse?

Dr. DEWALT: The Amish firmly believe in community and they believe that a small school close to home builds community. And they believe a large school, children would become numbers and not people. An interesting thing about an Amish school is you'll have your brothers and sisters in class with you. So I might be an eighth grader, but my fifth grade brother's in the class and my third grade sister. So that also builds community, too.

BLOCK: So in this case, you can imagine that while the girls were being lined up, chances are there were their brothers in that room who were being told to leave?

Dr. DEWALT: Yes. Yes. I think this tragedy is really going to be hard for lots of people, but I think the young boys that were there that day, they're going to have a hard time because why were they picked to leave?

I also believe that this will be really hard for the teacher, because the teachers in an Amish society are called, which is the school board decides who they would like to have as a teacher. You don't prepare to be a teacher. You live a life as a good Amish person and then the school board decides if they need a new person who they're going to go get. So to be called to be an Amish teacher is an honor, and I think that all Amish teachers will be really affected by this tragedy.

BLOCK: You know this whole incident would be shocking in any community, of course, but it's especially shocking when it comes in such a pacifists' community.

Dr. DEWALT: Yes. What's particularly troubling to me is that where it occurred. As you know, the Amish don't have churches, so the school is their only public building. And as such, it has deep meaning for the children that go there and the adults that have built the school.

The school's sort of the hub of activity. At Christmastime, many Amish schools will have a Christmas program and the children will say poems and sing. At the beginning of the year, Amish parents will get together at the school and clean the school and paint it and make sure the books are ready and the desks are in line. So it's really, I think it would trouble the children who would have to go back there. I think it troubles the whole community.

The other thing that troubles me is, sitting in lots of Amish classrooms, the children when they sing usually stand at the front of the room, and so the fact that the man lined up the children at the chalkboard is - as a person who's been in lots of Amish schools, the symbolism is, it's even more - it even adds to me more tragedy.

BLOCK: Professor Dewalt, thanks very much.

Dr. DEWALT: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Mark Dewalt is the author of Amish Education in the United States and Canada. He teaches at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

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