Lebec, Caifornia, home to a dozen large Mennonite families
The two-room school is in a converted garage attached to the Mennonites’ church. It sits atop a steep hill, one turn beyond a tree in the middle of the road.
Parents drive here in pickups and minivans. They drop off their children at 8:30 a.m. for a day that begins with songs about submission to God and Bible verses recited from memory.
“As Christians, we want to raise our children in the fear of God and raise them up to have moral fiber,” said Willard Martin, on the way to his job building mini-barns.
The boys wear plain shirts and blue jeans. The girls are in homemade dresses of muted colors. One of the older girls wears a head covering. The others wear braided ponytails or pigtails that reach far down their backs.
They work on fractions and study everything from victory gardens to emperor penguins. The overriding emphasis is on morality and virtue.
“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow,” reads a bulletin board quote from Abraham Lincoln. “The shadow is what we think of it. The tree is the real thing.”
The youngest student is 6 and the oldest is 14. The older kids don’t go to school, instead finding jobs or helping their mothers run the household.
Hurst’s story is common. He went to a school in Pennsylvania that offered education through the 10th grade. Upon finishing at age 16, he started working full time as a truck farmer.
“Many of the people feel education is not an end in and of itself,” said Hurst, who became a teacher with little additional training at the age of 18. “While it’s nice to have an education, our main goal in life is to be servants and serve Christ.”
College isn’t taboo but is viewed as potentially dangerous. Mennonites talk of how higher education exposes people to philosophies that may contradict the Bible.
“They start to get smarter than God, if you know what I mean,” said Good, who stopped going to school after the 10th grade.
She speaks bluntly and with a hard Ohio-meets-Pennsylvania accent that has survived nine years in California. She and her husband, Bruce, came here to help outsiders understand their lifestyle and beliefs.
They had two children then. Now they have eight. And while some Mennonite couples use limited forms of birth control, Good said they allowed God to determine the size of their family.
She home-schools her children in a beautiful log home where a completed jigsaw puzzle of a Norman Rockwell painting hangs on the dining room wall. Her days are filled with reading lessons, hungry babies, Bible teachings and children’s card games.
“I’m happy being a mother,” she said after a lunch of leftovers and peaches she canned herself. “That’s what I feel is my calling.”
When the children grow up, they will choose whether to remain in a Mennonite community. Good won’t force them but is confident they’ll lead the same kind of life she does.
“That would be our goal and our teaching,” she said. “If you teach your children what’s right and it makes sense to them, they stick with it.”