The Sojourner

“Come in, come in, children, and take your seats.”

She must be the teacher, Joseph thought. She stood at the door smiling as the children filed past her. Joseph had seen English women when he went to town with Pop, but never this close up. He stared. Mrs. Lincoln had fluffy short hair and red lips. Her dress reached only to her knees and her toes peeped out of her shoes.

He took a seat at one of the low round tables and looked around at the other kids in the room. About half of them were Amish like him: replicas of their parents. The boys had bowl haircuts and wore homemade black pants that buttoned at the waist, held up by suspenders. The Amish girls’ braids were coiled around their heads, and their mid-calf dresses were fastened together with pins because buttons were forbidden for girls and women. Joseph didn’t know how Mom and his sisters managed not to get pricked when they were milking cows or hitching up the horses.

Climbing aboard the big yellow school bus at the end of the lane had been scary, and if his brother hadn’t been there, Joseph wasn’t sure he could have done it. The bumpy ride made his stomach feel funny. It was so different from the gentle sway of the buggy behind the trotting horse. School seemed even stranger.

“Class, today is Monday, September 4, 1950. Can you say it with me?”

The children obediently parroted the date.

“Now we’re going to say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Mrs. Lincoln said. “Everyone rise and face the flag.”

Joseph didn’t get it; what or who was a plejalejance? He watched to see what the others did. English was a shaky second language for him. His family only spoke Dutch at home, although over the summer his mother had tried to remember to speak English to smooth his transition to school. Added to the language difficulty was the fact that Joseph was already two years older and much bigger than the English first-graders. Like his brothers and sisters, he’d waited until he was eight to start school. English law compelled him to be educated until his sixteenth birthday, but because Amish kids didn’t go to high school, he’d repeat eighth grade until that birthday occurred. Starting as late as possible meant he’d only have to repeat it once.

His mind drifted back to the farm, where he knew Pop would have the team of huge Percheron work horses harnessed to the combine. He’d be pushing hard to get the big hay field harvested today, and ordinarily Joseph would have been helping. He’d been trailing after Pop since he could toddle, watching and learning. He couldn’t work as hard as Pop yet, but he worked as hard as he could.

Mrs. Lincoln passed out thin paper books. “These are our first readers,” she said. “Please open to page one. I’ll read the story of Dick and Jane today, but soon you’ll be able to read it for yourselves.”

Joseph listened incredulously to the adventures of Dick, Jane, Baby Sally, Spot and Fluffy. He wondered where their mom and pop were, and why the children weren’t helping with some task. Did they just play all day? Didn’t they have a garden to weed, crops to get in, livestock to feed?

Joseph felt a great lump of homesickness in his throat. The door beckoned, but he knew Pop would paddle him if he disobeyed the teacher. There’d be no running away for Joseph. He scrunched down in his seat. It was going to be a long eight years.

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