STRASBURG, Pa.—Laughing and swinging lunchboxes, the children hurried up the gravel path and through the door of the one-room schoolhouse. The boys jostled one another as they hung their straw hats on hooks and the girls stood in knots, playing clapping games.
At exactly 8:30 a.m. yesterday, the teacher, Fannie Mae Lapp, walked to the back of the classroom and pulled a yellow rope that hung from the ceiling, sounding the bell. Another day had begun at Locust Ridge School, where a sign on the wall reads, "Visitors bring a smile to our day."
Lancaster County, Locust Ridge is similar to the schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, where 10 Amish girls were shot, five fatally, on Monday. Many of the children in this classroom are related to the shooting victims, whose families live just a few miles away.
But yesterday, there was no mention of those violent events, as the teacher and her young students drew comfort from the religion-suffused order of Amish life.
As Amish children have for generations, the students in the sunny, gray-stucco school building began their day with a reading from the Bible. "Good morning, children," said Lapp, "we will now read from Genesis 37."
Just 20, she seemed more like an older sister, her blond hair parted ruler straight, twisted into a bun, and tucked under a white, crinoline bonnet. She pulled a gold-edged Bible from her desk and began reading the story of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors as the children sat silently, hands folded.
When she finished, the children stood up from their desk and recited the Lord's Prayer, and then filed in order of age to the front of the classroom to sing hymns.
"Our God is in time, on time, all time," sang first-grader Emma Ruth Stoltzfus, opening her mouth wide to reveal three missing teeth. Like most of the other children, she has several siblings who also attend the school, a square structure, about 20 feet long and 20 feet wide. The 19 student come from nine families, all of whom live within walking distance of the school.
In one-room schoolhouses, Amish children attend first through eighth grade and are taught by teachers who are usually young, unmarried women like Lapp. After eighth grade, students polish their German language skills and take vocational classes at private homes, keeping journals of their lessons. When they turn 14, they finish their formal education.
At 8:45, the Locust Ridge students returned to their wrought-iron and wood desks to start arithmetic class. Lapp drilled the two third-grade students on subtraction and then reviewed improper fractions with two sixth-graders. The other children wrote quietly in workbooks, glancing out the window only when the occasional horse-drawn carriage or plough rattled by. Later in the day, they would study reading and spelling in German and English, as well as health and penmanship.
Light filtered through windows and a skylight, drifting across the cream-colored walls and wooden floor. In keeping with Amish tradition, there is no electricity in the classroom, although a lamp connected to a propane tank is used on rainy days.
Above the blackboard hangs a German and English alphabet, a road map, and the word north. Each wall of the school is marked with a cardinal direction. Past the east windows, a herd of black-and-white Holstein dairy cattle grazed in a green field under a silo. Out the west windows, a two-lane blacktop road winds by fields of dried cornstalks. Only the homes and farms of Amish people can be seen.
"The main purpose [of Amish schools] is to prepare students to become successful adults in Amish society," said Donald B. Kraybill, a professor at nearby Elizabethtown College and an authority on Amish culture. "They're not concerned with multiculturalism or critical thinking or things that we stress at most American schools. They provide a protection for the Amish students from the secular pressures of the outside world."
To become teachers, women attend a summer workshop and meet with more experienced teachers, Kraybill said.
Lapp, who rises at 6 a.m. and often grades papers into the evening, said that she earns $40 a day, a typical salary for an Amish teacher. Most women teach for only a year or two and stop when they marry,
Despite the youth and inexperience of Amish teachers, they usually run a well-disciplined classroom, Kraybill said. "The schools are very orderly and very safe," he said. "They provide a very emotionally secure environment for the children."
Parents teach children to be obedient from a young age, and they maintain close relationships with their children's teachers, said Kraybill, adding that Amish children often perform better than rural public school students on standardized tests.
Before they were dismissed for lunch, the children lined up by the sink to wash their hands. Since there's no running water inside the building, seventh-grader Roseanne Stoltzfus poured water from a large thermos on each child's hands.
After the children had washed, Lapp washed her own hands and then poured water for Roseanne, who was wearing a lavender dress, a long black apron, black stockings and black sneakers. As she did so, the child stared dreamily out the window.
The students returned to their desks to pray before grabbing their lunchboxes and running outside for lunch.
After eating ham sandwiches washed down with apple cider, the younger children raced around the school building, playing a game called "peek around the corner."
Lapp and the older students played baseball by a chicken-wire backstop. Children periodically darted into the outhouses and then washed their hands at an outside pump.
"Learn me how," second-grader Sylvia Esh asked Roseanne, as she watched some girls play a hand-clapping game.
After lunch, the children removed mugs from hooks on the wall and drank water before returning to their desks.
Lapp instructed the older children to work in their hardback health and German textbooks. Printed especially for the Amish, they have few pictures.
She called Emma Ruth and Joseph Stoltzfus, the other first-grader, to the blackboard and quizzed them with phonics flashcards. The girl rocked from foot to foot, twisting her black pinafore in her hand as she tried to pronounce m-o. The afternoon sunlight glinted off a mason jar on Lapp's desk that held goldenrods, a gift from one of her students.
Then it was time for the children to sweep the classroom and straighten the desks before heading home. Lapp said goodbye to each child and watched them leave, walk down the path and out of the schoolyard.
"They're really innocent here," she said after the last child left. She said she has not discussed the shootings with her students, although she has heard them talk about what happened on Monday not so far away.
What is important, Lapp said, is to continue with the daily routine and make the children as safe and secure as possible.
"You think about it every time someone would come by the school," she said. "Just to think about something like that happening here, I can't even imagine it."
Then she closed the windows, pulled down the blinds and left the school, closing the door behind her.
It had no lock.