How What I Learned in First Grade Helped Me Teach

Yoder School, the memoir I wrote about my learning, is the backstory to my teaching. I didn’t go around talking with students about my teacher Alvina or how I felt when Mr. Pollard understood about me being so different in Flint. I didn’t tell my students that I listened, actually listened, to their excuses about homework because Mr. Cline at the community college hadn’t believed that I missed his quiz because my car was stolen from our driveway. So though I didn’t explain all this to students, these memories traveled with me into the classes I taught at the middle school and the prison and in parent education.

It was Alvina, my first teacher, who set in me the pattern to reflect, to take what I had seen and heard and to hold it up for examination. She’d take us to a chicken house or send us to the woods. And then she’d ask us, “What did you see? What did you hear? And we’d write our daily diaries.

IMG_7336A butterfly came out of our cocoon, I wrote on Wednesday, February 7, 1963. Its wings were crippled.

And the next day I wrote, Our butterfly was dead.

Life, I could see, wasn’t always right.

Later, though, I wrote about a different butterfly, one that unfurled its wings and flew away.

Life, I could then see, was sometimes beautiful.

Alvina taught me to collect stories and to carry them with me. And to use one story to inform another. How could my bad citizenship mark in first grade and my parent’s solution of a bird workbook help me when I felt restless in Mrs. Lott’s room in Flint? And later, what could I do when a student felt restless in my classroom?

All through grade school and high school and college, I did what Alvina taught me. I collected the stories that informed much of my three decades of teaching. And these stories became Yoder School.

Why Getting Lost in a Book was Good for Me

During my junior high years I biked to the branch library on Bristol Road once a week. Dodging potholes in the road, I balanced the bike basket full of books and a sack of books hanging from each handle bar. Finally, back in my room and sprawled across my bed, I’d open To Kill a Mockingbird and find Atticus Finch saying, “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”

Or I’d burrow into The Diary of a Young Girl and think about what Anne Frank said: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because despite everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

I laughed through Cheaper by the Dozen because Mr. Gilbreth and my dad were the same person. The only real difference was that my dad went to church.

When I read the formulaic books—Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, and Cherry Ames, I found comfort in their organization, their predictability, and their happy endings.

Mennonite books from the church library, books like Mattie Mae and The Miller Five and Betsy Buttonwood and The Crying Heart helped me remember that other plain people like me were alive somewhere. They helped me go back to Yoder School for an hour.

All these books took me away, which is where I wanted to be. I read during class with my book hidden on my lap. I read during study hall and lunch. I read at home while I dried dishes with the book propped up on the window sill above the kitchen sink. I read while I rocked my little brother to sleep. I read as I walked home from school. When I’m a teacher, I thought, I just might let my class read for a whole day.

My Mom and Dad and 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭

“There’s a dark side to your book,” my mom told me yesterday. “It’s messing up your dad’s naps. He can’t stop reading to sleep.”

It’s no wonder. He’s all through the story.

I took my parents a copy of Yoder School the other day. Inside the front cover I wrote them a note:

To Mom and Dad,
You formed so much of this story.
With my love,
Phyllis

Here you can see a photo of my parents and me in the beautiful mountains of Western Maryland before we moved away to the city.

Swallow Falls

And here we are on the day I gave them my memoir, all of us looking as if the decades have aged us.

IMG_7326

 

 

 

Background of a Blurb: Titus Peachey

When I was writing a curriculum about peace, Titus Peachey reached out to me. For decades, Titus had been the director of peace education for Mennonite Central Committee, a relief, service, and peace agency that works in more than 50 countries. He shared resources with me, and we talked about how people learn.

Titus, too, comes from Western Maryland. He also grew up with the taste of maple syrup and sounds of Pennsylvania Dutch and the panorama of autumn color on the mountain sides. And like me, Titus left those childhood scenes to pursue his callings.

This is why I was grateful when Titus agreed to read Yoder School. And I appreciate his comments.

“Phyllis Swartz reached out and drew me in with her warm and thoughtful memoir. Her journey out of the comfortable cocoon of her childhood to encounter the wider world stirred my own reflections on identity, belonging, and faith.”

—Titus Peachey, Peace Advocate

 

The Family I Left

Me and the MillersI’m the baby in this picture, the first in my generation to be born into this family. My dad is holding me and standing next to my mother. You can see my grandparents, my many aunts, and my Uncle Philip, who was just a few years older than I was.  And this is only one part of the family we left when we moved from Grantsville, Maryland, to Flint Michigan. The Benders—my mother’s family—was even larger, more than 70 people . . . and growing.

When this picture was taken, none of us knew my parents and I and my coming brothers and sisters would move away from the mountains, away from a Mennonite community, and away the country to live in the city of Flint, Michigan.

 

The Family I Left

Me and the MillersI’m the baby in this picture, the first in my generation to be born into this family. My dad is holding me and standing next to my mother. You can see my grandparents, my many aunts, and my Uncle Philip, who was just a few years older than I was.  And this is only one part of the family we left when we moved from Grantsville, Maryland, to Flint Michigan. The Benders—my mother’s family—was even larger, more than 70 people . . . and growing.

When this picture was taken, none of us knew my parents and I and my coming brothers and sisters would move away from the mountains, away from a Mennonite community, and away the country to live in the city of Flint, Michigan.

 

The New School in a Rustbelt City

I did third grade twice: once in Alvina’s room at Yoder School and once in Mrs. Lott’s room in Flint, Michigan. Mrs. Lott taught at South Bendle Elementary, eight blocks from our new home in the parsonage of the Mennonite mission church. Mr. Watson, the principal, looked at my age and said I was in third grade. No matter that I already knew how to divide and had already read Charlotte’s Web. So I dutifully re-solved last year’s math problems and answered endless comprehension questions from third grade readers.

Alvina liked school, but Mrs. Lott didn’t. And I could see why. Her room was full of too many noisy kids. These kids, I decided, must not have had parents who taught them to listen to a teacher. In Mrs. Lott’s crowded room, there weren’t enough desks to go around, and we had to share books. Besides all this, there were no meadows or woods around the school, no place for her to send students to gather flowers or to read under a tree.

No wonder she looked too tired to get excited about a lesson. She sat there behind her desk with her curls tight, not bouncy and free, her mouth in a thin straight line, and worry wrinkles across her forehead. I felt sorry for her. But I also felt restless—rutschy, as we said in Pennsylvania Dutch. Still I tried to be good, to not make even more trouble for Mrs. Lott.

In Mrs. Lott’s room the flies around the window sills droned on and on. I stared out the window and watched a colorless elm leaf drift from a tree. The breeze lazily picked up a corner of the American flag, then changed its mind and dropped it. I watched the second hand tick past the minute hand, and I squinted my eyes to catch the hour hand move. Is this what school would be like away from Alvina? And somewhere inside me, an ache began to grow.

I figured it out on my paper. Counting this year, I’d have to sit in school for fourteen years to get my college diploma—almost twice as long as my entire life so far. I had thought the hard part was over when I said good-bye to Yoder School, but now I knew the hardest part lay ahead.

The back of my throat hurt, like it was bleeding. I buried my face between my arms on my desk. I can’t do this, I thought. But I had to. I wiped my sniffles on the sleeve of my dress and picked up my book. I had to find the gumption to carry on—to learn to be a good teacher without Alvina.