I’m pleezed ta welcum my moth'r, Phyllis Mill'r Swartz, ta t'Anxiyus Bench. She hus extensif' teachin eggsperients at middle skools an' prisons n' Ohio. She is also t'auther o'Yod'r Skool, jes releest by Cascadia Trayler. It’s a memoir at traces t'educatyunal journey o'a yung conservatif' Mennonite schoolgirl frum t'Appalachiun Mountins ta grittee Flint, Michigun, ta Amish kuntry n' Lancast'r Countee, Pennsillvany, ta t'hippie hothouse o'Antioch College. I knoe I’m biast, but thishere is a rilly cumpellin book.
Whut wuz Yod'r Skool?
Nicknamt “Dutch College,” Yod'r wuz a public skool, eiite grades n' three rooms. It wuz set upon a slope risin up frum t'Casselmun Riv'r n' one o't' ranges o't' Appalachiun Mountins n' western Marylan'. But onlee t'youngns o't' plane folk wint thar—Amish, Beechy, an' Mennonite kids. I belongt ta t'Mennonites.
My classmates remindt me o't' quilt un my bt at trayler. I lackd t'mixt-togeth'r patterns: t'dark apernt dresses o't' Amish gurls beside t'bright'r dresses o't' Mennonites, shert hair o't' Mennonite boys mixt wiff t'long'r Amish cuts like t'hair o'Noah Yod'r, who sat across t'aisle frum me. His'n straw-colord hair lookt us if'n his'n mom put a servin bowl un top o'his'n hed an' the cut all t'hair at hung beneeth t'bowl. I lackd hoe his'n hair bounct wen he run ta recess.
Phyllis (frunt roe, thurd frum t'lef) wiff hern Yod'r Skool classmates (minus mos o't' Amish kids who chose nairy ta be n' t'pitchure)
Yer reflectyuns cummence wiff a three-room Amish schoolhouse, but thay end wiff t'hippie Antioch College. Un one level, thay coultn’t be mer differnt. But y'all suggest at thay had minny a similaritees. Hoe so?
At Yod'r Skool time flowt an' subjects mergt into each uther. My classmates an' I coultn’t quite tell if'n we wuz wurkin er playyun' er a'larnin. We trampt across meedows an' through woods ta fill jars wiff flowers. And back at skool, we port ov'r flow'r books ta idantify t'hunnert an' fiftee specimens we had foun. We watcht a monarch butterflee emerge frum its cocoon an' ust math block towers ta solve t'puzzles o'math. We countid out change n' air classroom “stere” an' wrote air own books. No matt'r air ages, we reat wiff t'furst grade er sekunt er fifth, whichev'r level fit us bes. At Yod'r Skool, I could see at a'larnin wuz full o'wunder, so I deecided ta becum a teechur.
And the we movt away—ta Flint, Michigun. Hoe, I ofte ast myself durin thems yeers, could I becum a good teechur wen I didn’t have one? Through junier high an' high skool an' n' classes at a communitee college, I kep seerchyun' fer t'enchantment I had foun at Yod'r Skool. And mosly nairy a'findin it. Nairy until I enrollt at Antioch College n' Yealler Springs, Ohio.
Wen I walkt into my furst class, I didn’t see cape dresses an' suspenders an' hed coverings. But I did see distinctif' dress. I saw tattoos an' bodee piercings n' eyebrows an' noses an' lips an' tongues. I saw purple hair an' bare feet. And I saw heedban's an' flowers n' hair so unkempt my gran'ma would have callt it strubblig.
But n' thems classrooms n' Yealler Springs, I foun wunder oncet agin. At Antioch studants larnt, nairy onlee n' classes, but also outside classroom walls, spendin 25 persent o'thar time n' internships. We didn’t use No. 2 pencils ta fill n' lil rectangles un bubbull anser sheets. Insteed, we reseercht an' wrote papers an' debatid. Air professers didn’t gif' us grades, but thay wrote narratif' evaluatyuns o'air involvement n' class. Wiff thishere freedum, I became investid an' set har stan'ards fer my wurk thun a professer would have set. Oncet agin, I wuz curiyus. I wantid ta knoe thangs.
Phyllis (back cant'r) wiff hern fambly wen she wuz a'livin n' Flint, Michigun
Whut a'ken yar experiences us a youngn say about Amurkin Mennonite trajecteries mer broadlee n' t'1960s an' 1970s?
I lef t'cloistert three-room Yod'r Skool n' t'mountins o'Western Marylan' becawz my parnts movt ta Flint, Michigun. Thar I encountert fites, peece-lovyun' hippies, race riots, an' tride ta keep frum gittin bullit fer a'warin a hed coverin ta skool. I didn’t have t'perspecktiv the at I wuz amungst utherns who wuz also t'“quiet n' t'lan'” movyun' beyond t'shelters o'thar own communitees ta faller a new missyunree impulse. I onlee knew at I unnerstood mer about bein a strang'r n' t'lan' thun I wantid ta knoe—hoe it felt, fer eggzample, ta wear a hed coverin ta a skool whar no one had ev'r heerd tell o'a Mennonite. And I wunderd about soshul issues I had nev'r ponderd befor—whut t'church could do, fer eggzample, about racial tension an' povertee. And I wuz puzzlt by t'acoupla flavers o'peece I saw—t' turn-yar-cheek kine I had bee tawt n' Sundy skool an' t'calls fer peece frum t'flow'r youngns an' t'protesters o't' Vietnam War.
I had a greet'r unnerstandin, tho, o'hoe I fit into t'historickull trajectery o'har skoolin. Sittin un t'long bench at my gran'ma’s kitchin tabull durin fambly meels, I had listned ta steries about air fambly’s chane o'a'larnin. I’d heerd tell hoe my greet-gran'pa tawt hissef English so well at folk sed thay nett a dickshunairy ta unnerstan 'im wen he preecht, hoe my greet-greet gran'pa had foundt t'subscripshun skool at lat'r became Yod'r Skool, an' hoe my gran'pa fer greets back had startid a skool n' his'n trayler, a'sayn't, “T' youngns must larn.”
Skwisht tween my cousins un t'bench an' swirleeun' gravy through my masht potatoes, I’d reckon about hoe I, too, lackd ta larn. And I’d feel serry fer my mom an' dad an' gran'parants, who had quit skool fer t'church, eve tho thay would have lackd mer skoolin.
Nawh n' t'1960s, t'church let folk go ta skool pus sevanth grade, all t'way through high skool an' eve ta college. Thishere is why my dad had gone ta college, eve tho he had nev'r gone ta high skool an' eve tho he had three youngns an' almos fer an' eve tho he milkt 20 Jerseys ever day ta pay t'rent an' sold aigs doer-ta-doer n' t'citee ta buy groceries. Like me, my dad lackd ta wurk wiff his'n mind mer thun wiff his'n han's.
And I recognizt at it wuz bof a privilege an' a responsibilty ta be t'furst one n' thishere chane o'folk ta have knowed un my furst day at Yod'r Skool, at I could go strate through all t'grades o'skool an' through all t'yeers o'college ta git a diploma. Thishere mite be hard, I ofte thunk, but I net do thishere.
Phyllis (helt by hern fath'r), t'furst gran'child n' t'large Mill'r fambly
A'ken y'all share a brief excerpt frum t'book?
At summ'r, my fath'r baptizt me. Thishere made public my associashun wiff Gawd. Wiff my baptism, I acknowltgt at I would faller Jesus’s teechings n' dailee life, at I would bend my will ta Gawd’s will, ta suff'r so at lat'r I would be n' glery wiff Gawd. And nawh wuz t'ime ta start a'warin a coverin un my hed, n' accerdance wiff t'Apostle Paul’s wurds n' I Cerinthyins 11. I won’t reckon about a'warin thishere ta skool until fall, I promissd myself each monin' wen I pinnt my coverin ov'r my hair.
My furst day ta wear a coverin ta T.N. Lamb Junier High, I woke wiff a dreed like I wuz goin ta one o't' executyuns n' t'Martyrs’ Mirrer. My bruther James an' I reat t'Martyrs’ Mirrer wiff a fascinatid herrer. Thishere heevy book, fer inches thick, tole t'steries o'ov'r fer thousund folk who dit becawz thay refusd ta gif' up thar beliefs about Gawd. We reat about acoupla gurls who wuz lt ta thar executyuns wiff straw wreeths un thar haids.
One gurl whisperd ta t'uther, “Since t'Lord Jesus wore a crown o'therns fer us, why should we nairy wear these crowns o'straw n' honer o'im?”
We reat about bodies torn un t'rack an' gougt out eyes, an' beheedings, an' steries o'folk sangin wile thay burnt. These steries wuz proof ta us at a'livin fer Gawd brings folk ta sufferyun'. And thishere could be true fer us, too. A'warin a coverin ta T.N. Lamb Junier High wasn’t innythang like bein burnt un a stake, but it shure felt like it.
I startid off lat'r thun usual, un purrpus. I wantid ta arrif' jes us t'skool bell rang. I wuz consciyus o'each step I took toward skool, a'feelin fertunate at I wasn’t meetin innyone I knew. The I kum ta t'smokin tree, jes a block befor skool.
Usual wen I kum by at tree, twantee ta thirtee kids loungt und'r it takin thar lus drags befor skool. But it wuz late, so onlee about fife kids still lingert, t'smoky, blue haze much thinn'r thun it would have bee te minnuts befor. As direckly us Harold MacDonald saw me, he sed, “Whut t'heck?” But jes the t'warnin bell rang. Harold an' his'n buddies stompt out thar cigarettes an' hightailt it fer skool. And I hurrit behin 'um, movyun' fast'r thun I had all monin'.
T' day wuz everlastyun', jes like t'day I kep Amos Beechy frum gittin a paddleeun' so long ago at Yod'r Skool. My friens raist thar eyebrows wen thay saw me er simplee ast, “Whut’s at?” I shavt my anser down ta three wurds:  fer my church. I could see my teechers watchin me. And t'kids who didn’t knoe me so well jes pointid an' snickert. I kep my hed high an' raist my han' ta anser questchuns n' class. I lookt everyone—my friens an' everyone else—strate n' t'eye. . . .
Y'all jes retirt aft'r thirtee yeers o'teachin. Hoe did thishere chilthood incident shape yar teachin methods?
Skool hurts. It’s a place whar studants git woundt. Rusht teechers make throe-away commints. And bullies pass thar pane ta utherns. Studants air malignt fer nairy a'havin t'rite ackcent, t'rite shoes, t'rite hair. Er, thay air ostracizt fer a'livin un t'rong side o'town er becawz t'wurk is too hard fer 'um . . .  er too easy. And studants air marginalizt fer thar ethnicitees.
My woundyun' kum frum bein differnt—a kuntry gurl movt ta t'citee wiff braids insteed o'a beehif' hairdo, wiff skirts mid-calf insteed o'mid-thigh mini length. I knew hoe ta syun' shapt notes but had nev'r heerd tell o't' Rolleeun' Stones. And I could hide ner hair my ancesters back ta t'ol' kuntry but had nev'r see t'Addams Fambly.
It took me a wile ta see t'hidde gift o'these wounds, ta reelize at t'looks, t'laughs, t'assumptyuns at I woultn’t fit at a partee could be turnt ta a benefit. I didn’t see at bein differnt wuz developyun' resileeince n' me an' courage an' creetivitee. And nairy until I became a teechur did I unnerstan at I could turn whut had hurt me into a have fer my studants.
One day un hall dooty at t'middle skool whar I tawt, fer eggzample, I watcht t'streem o'studants floe by. Thar n' t'hall, I could see a gurl a'warin a hijab, a boy wiff a prosthetic laig, a speshul skoolin student newlee includt n' my classroom, a gurl wiff a missyun' arm, a student who towert ov'r hern classmates an' one stretchyun' ta appeer us tall us he could. I could see a student whos fath'r had murdert his'n classmate’s dad.
These studants, I eyesd, had my heert. All through my decades o'teachin, I had reecht fer t'studants un t'edges. T' wounds o'my differantness had cawzed me pane, but thay had also deepent my unnerstandin an' compassion an' wuz nawh heppin me larn.
Whut memoirs did y'all reat us y'all wrote yar own?
I reat memoirs t'whole time I wuz ritin, too minny a ta rememb'r. And I reat 'um n' a new way, nairy onlee fer t'stery, but also ta see hoe t'steries wuz writte. Sum memoirs I re-reat ta find thar overall structures. I focussd un cumpellin ssenes—why perzackly did these ssenes pull me n'? Hoe did authers shoe conflict an' personalitee an' growth?
I reat memoirs frum authers whos steries wuz quite differnt frum mine, memoirs like Westov'r’s Eddicated, Kalanithi’s Wen Breth Becomes Air, Obamie’s A'gettin, an' T' Glass Castle by Jeennette Walls. And I reat memoirs at, wile still differnt, kum clos'r ta my stery—Why I Lef t'Amish by Saloma Mill'r Furlong, I Am Hutterite by Murry-Ann Kirkby, an' Blush by Shirley Hershey Showalt'r.
As I reat I foun folk, who strugglt us I had, ta knoe hoe ta be differnt an' hoe ta blend n'. And I foun folk who encountert obstacles us thay reecht toward goals—sumtimes successfullee an' sumtimes nairy. Tho air steries air distinct, n' minny a ways we air all verr much t'same.
Whut wuz it like ritin about folk who air still a'livin?
Sumtimes complicatid. N' ord'r ta be truthfil, I nett ta tell sum steries o'pane, but I didn’t want ta cawz mer pane. So n' thems sectyuns, I changd names, modifit chronology, mergt characters, an' altert deetails ta protect idantitees. But wen I wantid ta recognize er honer someone who contributid ta my skoolin, I ust un ackshul name.
My editer gave me a hepful construct. As y'all write, he tole me, reckon n' terms o'yar posishun. Air y'all a'lookin at a care ackter frum beloe er frum above er frum t'side? Inny stery at mite be reat us impleeyun' a frum-above view o'persons us broke is particularlee tricky, he sed, wile vioos frum t'side an' beloe provide mer latitude. I ofte felt t'acoupla tugs o'truth an' kindness an' tride ta keep a balance.
Whut’s nex fer y'all?
Wen I finisht ritin Yod'r Skool, I foun I wasn’t finisht wiff Flint. So I’ve bee ritin a middle-grade historickull ficshun book set n' Flint, Michigun. It’s nairy biografical, but like t'mane care ackter, I lef my gran'ma n' t'mountins wen I movt ta Flint. And like t'mane care ackter, I wuz a youngn n' t'1960s wen t'Civil Rights Movement wuz growin an' t'citees wuz burnin an' t'Beetles wuz sangin an' t'Vietnam War seemt endless. And bof my protagonist an' I knoe whut it’s like ta be differnt—ta have acsants an' clothes an' hairstyles at shoe everyone, speshly bullies, at we have come frum a differnt place.

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