Feeling the High (German) Part Two

Today I sat down with my mother and asked, “Mom, when we learned to read High German in Sunday school, why didn’t the teachers teach us the meaning of the words on the page?”

She smiled and answered, “That’s just the way things were run back then.  The general belief was that education belonged only to leaders in the community.  In fact, if you were able to read, you were committing the sin of worldliness.”

The people she spoke of made up the Old Colony Mennonite community where I grew up and which Mom and Dad are still a part of.  They are an exclusive sect of Mennonites who are ultra conservative in their beliefs and old-fashioned in dress.  They are beginning to place more and more value on education now but when I was a child our parents sent us to public school only because it was illegal to keep us at home.  Reading German was helpful insofar as it enabled us to memorize entire hymns and sonnets which we recited in church at Christmas and Easter to earn a brown paper bag apiece stuffed with candy, peanuts, a small toy and an orange.

I understand that at that time, leaders ruled the community who kept their followers ignorant to control them.  But then why teach us to read at all?  We could pronounce the written words perfectly, but we read them in a flat, lifeless monotone because they meant little more to us than the bar code on a Walmart receipt.  In all the years that they practiced this mode of teaching, did one teacher ever turn to another and say, “Dude, this is pointless.  These kids wouldn’t know a Glaubensbekenntniss if it hit them on the head.  Ring the schluss bell; we’re going for a Coke.”

Then I asked Mom, “So how did you come to understand the written word?”

Her answer surprised me.

“I wanted to know what was in books,” she said.  “So I read them until I understood them.”

It was that simple yet that brilliant.

In the past I often saw my mother as a weak and passive woman who simply let life happen to her.  But I’ve come to see her quite differently, and today especially so.  I see a strong woman who burned out by struggling alone with illness and tragedy, all while cooking, washing and cleaning for a husband and ten children.   She taught herself to read and write German with the tools she’d been given: knowledge of what the language looked like and a desire to learn.   I believe her character would have blossomed and she would have followed even more dreams if she’d been born into kinder, gentler circumstances.

With her lowly origins and meager education, I thought I knew all there was to learn from Mom after she taught me to make Schmaunt fat (creamy Mennonite gravy).  I’m moved and humbled to discover how wrong I was.  Her words shone a light on my quandary about being unable to understand High German.  I don’t need a tutor.  I don’t need to spend money on night classes.  I only have to want it.  I have to stop whining about it and crack open a book.  I have to read it until I understand it.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by jdriedger13 on June 10, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Amen. I can get behind that.

    Reply

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