Meditation on Jealousy and Relief/Community and Individualism

Back in November, I reflected on what some of the women of the Eastern Mennonite High School class of 1959 had to say about mischief in their school days. Talking to these women I had the same two reactions I have anytime I talk with Mennonites from older generations: jealousy and relief.

My interview with the EMHS grads was part of a series of interviews with Mennonite women, talking about daily life in the 1930s-1960s. My interviewees described a world centered on church community. It was a world that sounds like an awful lot of fun (thus, the jealousy).

From a group of women who grew up in Denbigh, Virginia in the “Mennonite colony,” the 1940s and 1950s meant roller skating parties on Colony Road, hot dog roasts, boat rides on the river, swimming, and girls’ slumber parties at home or along the river. The boys usually stopped by, too—to hang around and tease a bit. “I just remembering having fun,” one woman remarked. Another chimed in, “the young folks would have so much fun together.” Their bonds were strong, perhaps because so much of the world was off limits. One woman remembered that they were not allowed to play cards, so they made their own decks.1

Other women also described church as their social world. Ruth H. (b. 1924, Ohio) remembered the difference the new Mennonite Youth Fellowship made in her life. Sermons may have been long, but MYF made church worthwhile.2 Vera K. (b. 1926, Pennsylvania) remembered how much she enjoyed hanging around after church just talking with other young people. Both described singing, in groups or quartets, and Sunday School parties.3

Church was a place to fit in—often in contrast to life at public schools. Ruth H,. recalled being “lonely” at school, in the early 1940s, as one of only a few Mennonites. Going to Goshen College was a “wonderful experience” where she found close friends and mentors and felt she finally belonged.4 Ruth S. (b. 1933, Pennsylvania) echoed this sentiment. She, too, went to public school where she was involved in activities, but only to a point. She remembered making signs for school dances but not going to the dances. On the rare occasion she did go, she hung back and didn’t dance (one time she danced with the football coach: “I survived it okay. It didn’t do me in,” she reported). Ruth S. described feeling torn: she wasn’t comfortable taking part in all of the school activities and yet she didn’t like being left out. For her, too, Goshen College was where she could fully participate.5

You don’t have to be a historian to realize the risks in idealizing the past. The price of a tightly knit community was surveillance and conformity. The women all remembered a less fun cornerstone of community life: revival meetings. While many had positive things to say, most also remembered feeling fear as well. Ruth S.  called revivals “high pressure” and “very emotional.”6 The Denbigh women recalled that preaching often centered on fear of hell, not the love of God. The preachers were “after the hardened sinners but… got me” said one, remembering the fear she felt. Another recalled the anxiety around communion and the experience of taking open communion at a Presbyterian church as and adult. “It was unbelievably freeing,” she said, so moving that she cried. Another faulted their church community for having “no grace” and said that leaders “deprived me of a loving God.”7

Revival meetings were not the only source of anxiety. The same social bonds that could make life fun could make life hard. The EMHS women remembered how even just looking “worldly” could get you marked as a trouble-maker. Looking worldly could involve your dress and deportment choices—or it could be something you had no control over, such as having bright, unruly hair.8 And there was always someone watching, especially if you were a woman. Mary R. (b. 1930, Pennsylvania) remembered how uncomfortable it made her to walk up the steps to the Lancaster Mennonite School library with a male administrator looking on, checking that skirts were long enough.9 The good old days were not that great (thus, relief that those days are gone).

Just as we should be cautious about idealizing the past, we should not forget that community norms are often unstable—and there is joy in the process of contesting culture. The EMHS women chuckled at their exploits: holding hands under the table, away from the eyes of “spies” in the social room, sneaking out for motorcycle rides, banding together to irritate a conservative teacher in subtle ways. There is no fun quite like subversive fun. We don’t acknowledge this nearly enough.

Then again, subversive fun is less fun if you’re caught—and you’re more likely to be caught if you’re someone who is less “in.” Being “in” means knowing how to break rules, or how to read the often unstated exceptions to rules and knowing how to handle yourself if caught. Being “out” means you function with the same rules but without the inside knowledge required to keep you from more serious consequences.

These are hard truths: tight community bonds often mean community surveillance. Having a sense of being “in” often means someone else will have a sense of being “out.” I am relieved to have grown up in a time where I never imagined God as scary, where no one checked my skirt length, and there was no pressure surrounding baptism. I was encouraged to know my own mind and to make choices that were “right for me.” I am relieved the Mennonite world shifted before I was born.

But I am still jealous. When I’m 70, I won’t be gathering for regular breakfasts with the women of my high school class. As a child I stayed in one place but my friends moved regularly as parents climbed career ladders. We were drawn together by similar interests but we didn’t know each other’s families in the same way these women knew each other. We were friends as individuals. We were not a community.

Is there a way to have both room for the individual and a close-knit community? When I think about this on a theoretical level the answer seems like an obvious yes. It’s a matter of prioritizing community and intentionally cultivating it. When I think about this on a practical level it gets stickier.

What does it mean to prioritize or intentionally cultivate community? The world is no longer off limits. You can go to the college that best suits you, as an individual, not necessarily a college you have family or church ties to. It’s expected that you’ll move for a career, leaving the connections of family, friends, and church. You can give as little or as much as you like to a church in terms of time and resources. No one is watching. There is a never-ending list of things you can do with your time, the people you can meet, and the places you can take your talents. We don’t need to invent our own deck of playing cards anymore. We are all free to go to the public school dance.

But there is only so much time in this life and if I go to the dance Saturday night I may be too tired to go to church on Sunday. Or, to make this metaphor more fitting for my life: if I’m facing a deadline at work then I might stay home and work on a Sunday, because that’s what I need this day. It’s more than just church attendance. I look for the friends and communities that suit my individual tastes—sometimes that means church community and often not.

What has been lost? Community life? Sense of place? Stable church-related institutions? Individualism has its place, but it’s not always conducive to walking together. If the church I was raised in doesn’t suit me just right as an individual, I can easily go down the road to another one.

There is probably no easy solution to the conundrum of community and individualism. No easy resolution to my feelings of both jealousy and relief. Perhaps the tension does not need to be resolved, only acknowledged. Is this state of tension at the core of what it is to be a Mennonite in the twenty-first century? We are painfully aware of the ways in which community went wrong in the past and continues to go wrong today. But we also make community a hallmark of our faith.

A couple of months ago I ended up in a Facebook conversation about Austin McCabe Juhnke’s piece “Rethinking 606, the ‘Mennonite national anthem.’” My friends and friends of friends pondered the implications of Juhnke’s argument. We agreed we all wanted community, and rituals that bring us together, but we struggled with how to create community that does not exclude.

I find it difficult to know how to end a meditation like this one. Perhaps that is because you can’t think your way out of the conundrum of community life. We may have to spend more time together to work on it. I don’t necessarily mean more time at church or more time dissecting hidden power dynamics inherent in community building. I mean more time playing together or getting to know each other—perhaps more time engaging in subversive fun together. In the past Mennonites knew each other well but likely had a less developed analysis of the perils of community life. Today we have the theory down, but we don’t know each other as well. Could we put the two together—awareness of the danger and knowing each other well—and see if we end up in a different place?

  1.   Women from the Denbigh community, oral history interview (February 12, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  2. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  3.  Vera Kauffman, oral history interview (February 5, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  4. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  5. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview (December 2 and December 5, 2013), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  6. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview (December 2 and December 5, 2013), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  7. Women from the Denbigh community, oral history interview (February 12, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  8. Eastern Mennonite High School, class of 1959, oral history interview (March 14, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  9. Mary Reitz, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 

Lessons in Mischief from the Eastern Mennonite High School Class of 1959

The Eastern Mennonite School centennial a few weeks back provided the opportunity to reflect on, as Donald Kraybill has put it, one hundred years of countercultural education. Hopefully, the reunions and reminiscences also provided the chance to reflect on a quintessential aspect of student life: mischief. But if you’re looking for more, read on. 

In March 2014 I sat down with five women from the EMHS class of 1959. They shared about many aspects of student life in the 1950s, perhaps most gleefully reminiscing about the little ways they pushed the boundaries of good behavior. What follows is a list of things I learned about how to get away with mischief from the self-described “good kids” of 1959. (The women are identified below by their initials. All quotes come from the transcript I prepared, titled “EMHS 1959 Transcript,” available at the Menno Simons Historical Library at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA).

#1. Spies are all around: know who to watch out for (and where to watch for them)

It’s not just teachers, staff, or parents who enforce good behavior. College students, too, could act as “spies.”

MH: You remember the spies? [they all laugh]. They were college kids. We didn’t know who they were. College kids were designated spies so when you were in the dorm [Northlawn] in the social room…You never knew who was watching you. So you tried to sit there with your hands down here [indicates under the table] so you could hold hands [with a boyfriend]. We did that a lot…. I never got caught but it’s not that we never held hands.

#2. Break one rule at a time and make the most of your image

In 1959 looking plain signaled that all was right within you. You could be trusted. And this meant you could get away with more.

MH: And one day, I lived in the dorm and [boyfriend] had a sister that lived down close to where the seminary is now. They wanted us to come for supper so Miss Barge and Esther Longacre were deans and I had to get permission to go walk from this dorm [Northlawn] to there with him and it was dark. And that was almost a no-no. They didn’t want to let us go but [boyfriend] at that time was very conservative. He wore a plain coat. And Miss Barge liked him. [laughing]. And I still remember her words: we’re going to let you go but you know we trust you.  [more laughter]. Little did they know! [laughter]

CB: If you looked conservative.

MH: Yeah.

CB: You could get by with just about anything.

#3. Mischief is best accomplished within the safety of a group — and in a way that uses modesty to your advantage

The women recalled a particularly conservative faculty member and what they did to irritate him:

CB: …one time just to be kind of ornery, some of us girls sewed little bells on our crinolines, under our skirts. And then when we walked it jingled a little bit. Wasn’t real loud but you could hear these little bells. And I know…one of the professors, it would agitate him so. Of course he couldn’t see them but he started quoting scripture about these tinkling cymbals or something. [Laughter.]…. he thought we were very sinful because we had bells on.

#4. If possible, be a boy

CB: And remember the boys found out that I was so afraid of mice…We had these desks which opened up. I opened it up and there’s a mouse!

UK: a live one?

CB: No, dead. And I screamed. [Laughter]. They had the biggest kick out of that. But I don’t think they got in trouble. [More laughter].

UK: You probably got in trouble for screaming.

#5. Sometimes you need a little help from worldly items (like an eyebrow pencil)

WR: You were supposed to wear hose all the time.

Shen61 02

Girls playing volleyball, c. 1961. Is that truly a stocking seam on the back of the girl’s leg? Or a cleverly drawn line, courtesy of an eyebrow pencil? (Girls playing volleyball, 1961 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA.)

WR: And they had to be dark.

ED: And they had to have seams.

HS: What was it about seams? [the younger interviewer is confused, having only known a world where hose don’t have seams]

ED: So they knew you had hose on.

CB: Eyebrow pencil worked.

UK: You just took eyebrow pencil and —

UK: There’s always a way to get around everything! [Laughter]

CB: You could use an eyebrow pencil and put the mark up your leg and you’d look like you had stockings on.

HS: And that worked? [wondering how they all had eyebrow pencil; wouldn’t make-up have been forbidden?]

WR: For a while! [Laughter]

#6. Enjoy the ironies that will come when your elders don’t think through the logical results of certain rules

The women remembered rules about wearing skirts even during gym class. Bad news for the girls; potentially appreciated by the boys. 

MH: And the boys really enjoyed going to the basketball games. Because they couldn’t wait until we’d fall over and then they’d see our skirts would fly up. I remember them talking about it. [laughter.]


Girls playing basketball in the old gym at EMS, c. 1957. Their skirts appear well in order. (Girls playing basketball, 1957 Shenandoah (Eastern Mennonite School yearbook), courtesy of the Menno Simons Historical Library, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA)

#7. Sometimes you just have to risk it

CB: The most sneaky thing we did was we snuck out in front of the chapel, got on motorcycles with two of our male classmates and they took us for a ride through Park View and back and then we worried for weeks; we were afraid that somebody would find out. That would have been terrible.

UK: We’d have been sent home.

#8. When you get older and are looking back, have some grace for your elders

CB: You know I have done a lot of fussing about the way things were but I really appreciate the bottom line was a good religious base and some of these far out things that they demanded, they were just carrying out what they needed to, I suppose. But I am thankful for what the church stands for, the Mennonite church.

#9 But also acknowledge that amid the fun was real hurt—and real mistakes

It may be funny sixty years later to think of boys hoping the girls’ skirts would fly up in gym class; it could very well have been deeply embarrassing for the girls then. But embarrassment is the least of the problem—sexism, double standards, and all the problems inherent in the male gaze also come to mind.

And while pushing the limits in small ways was one thing, the costs were real for those who didn’t quite fit in. The women remembered one classmate who left school because she would not confess to the error of having a boy student put his arm around her shoulder on the couch. They remembered this student had “looked a little wordly” and always been under suspicion. Speaking of another issue, one woman recalled that her sister had red, curly hair. Just having this bright, unruly hair meant “she looked like a wordly student…And everything that went wrong, she got blamed for because she just looked like somebody that would be mischievous or break the rules or whatever. And she carries that stigma with her today.” Whether kicked out of school, or just being under suspicion for how you naturally look, inequality and injustice lurks in many of these memories.

What lessons in mischief do you have from your school days? What gems could be recorded at your family dinners? Thanksgiving is coming. In the centennial spirit, think about purchasing a small digital recorder (I use an RCA VR5320 R digital voice recorder which costs around $30) and sitting down to record some stories. If you interview a Mennonite women, consider donating the recording to the collection where the interview I quote from here is housed: Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, in the Eastern Mennonite University archives. I am happy to answer any questions about the logistics of recording interviews or about how to donate recordings to an archive.