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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

An Alumnus Of The Only Old Order Amish High School Ever

Drawing of Amish church and school by former student Eli Miller
I spent Saturday at a reunion with 47 alumni of the church-sponsored Amish high school near Stuarts Draft that I attended from 1951-1956. Its one classroom, as shown on the right of the picture, accommodated up to 25 students in grades 8-10, all attending in response to a newly enforced Virginia state requirement that all children must be in school until age 16.

"Hilltop School", as it later came to be affectionately nicknamed, has the distinction of being the only Old Order Amish "high school" to have ever existed. It was established in 1950 as an alternative to local Amish teens having to be bussed to a large consolidated high school near Fishersville, eight miles northeast of the public elementary school in Stuarts Draft where most of the Amish then attended. Some of these high school buses were driven by senior students, which added to the fear of their parents and church leaders that the overall effect of a Woodrow Wilson High School experience on their youth would be negative.

The Stuarts Draft Amish School closed its doors in 1966 as the Old Order group dwindled in size and the newly formed "Beachy Amish" (also known as "Amish Mennonite") group in the community established a school for all of grades 1-10. But during its 16 years of existence a total of 144 students had attended "Hilltop" for from several months to three years, depending on when they celebrated their sixteenth birthday. My next older brother Eli, who like some others who had already dropped out of school before compulsory attendance was enforced, attended only two months.

His instructor--and mine for my first two years--was our older brother Sanford. He, like each of the teachers at Hilltop, was a young adult from the church without college training, but they all worked hard at providing us with some solid post-elementary education in subjects like English, math, history. geography, earth science, nature study and Bible.

Most of us took our school work seriously, sometimes learning with our teachers, while forming lasting bonds with friends we will never forget. And since 1985 many of us have been getting together every five years to reminisce and to renew old ties.

This year an amazing total of 47 attended of the 106 alumni who are still living. And we were told that of the 73 male students who attended, 22 became ordained ministers, and an overwhelming majority of the total of 144 remained active in some church. To my knowledge, none divorced, and some, like myself, later passed our GED exams and went on to pursue higher education.

Not a bad record for the only Older Order Amish high school ever established.

And not surprisingly, none of us seem to regret not having been able to attend Woodrow Wilson High School.

Here's part of a poem, delightful in its simplicity, written for the first school reunion in 1985 by a former student, Sylvia Miller Byler. In it she describes experiences reminiscent of an era long past:

Nostalgic thoughts still come to mind
As school days I remember.
When the school bell pealed aloud
Those first days of September.

Our teacher, Rachel, sat erect
Behind her desk each day.
A smile of warmth she gave to us
In studies or at play.

The lessons taught were good for us,
We labored o'er each task
Until we conquered diagrams
And algebra at last.

I always loved the fragrance
Of the blooming apple trees
Growing 'round the old school house,
Shimmering in the breeze.

Some evenings after school we'd go
With errands to be run,
Stopping by a neighbor's home
Till Adam's bus did come.

We'd walk down to the Stutzman's
And get some eggs for mother,
Or visit busy Annie Mast
And buy some fresh churned butter.

The special hour of extra play
Each Friday afternoon,
A game of prisoner's base, or ball
How could it end so soon?

Sometimes a ball would take a left,
Hit attic window glass.
Gasps of wonder could be heard,
Someone went up there fast!

While yonder by the road
Some friendly folks drove by
And waved a hand at seeing you
or watched you catch a fly.

John B. Yoder with his horse,
Then Norman with some corn.
Most of these have passed away
To their eternal home.

But memories of these former days
Are fresh as early morn,
The annual outing we would take
At the close of each school term.

Also the nature study hikes
On balmy afternoons
Were full of venture, when we found
Some bird's nest or cocoons.

Much water's gurgled 'neath the bridge
Since those good times have been,
So it's extra good to see
Each one home again!

Some of us have aged a bit,
Some tints of gray we see,
With wrinkles 'round our faces
Both on you and me.

If these old stomping grounds could speak,
They'd tell a hundred stories,
Or write a book of poetry,
Perhaps some allegories.

If God continues adding years
On to your life and mine,
There's still some work for us to do
These next few years of time.

He's called us out to different fields
Of service and vocation,
Thanks be to God for nurtured roots
Begun at this location.

The school of life keeps going on,
There are lessons yet to learn,
From the great and heavenly Teacher,
Until his soon return.
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