(Posted Aug. 21, 2019)
By Theresa Hennis, Staff Writer
On Phyllis Miller Swartz’s 10th birthday, her parents gave her the book, “Someday You’ll Write” by Elizabeth Yates. That someday has come for the London author who has written her first book, a memoir titled “Yoder School.”
“My parents saw something in me,” she said. “I felt like the author of that book was speaking to me, and I did everything she told me to. I made myself a promise I would write a book before I died.”
Swartz had the desire to write even before she started school. She learned to read at the age of 3 and began writing. Her first teacher, Alvina Livengood, on whom the memoir is based, took her students on field trips and taught them how to make books and then write in them about their experiences.
Swartz decided to be a teacher when she was in first and second grade with Alvina.
“I thought I’d go back to Yoder School to teach, but I wanted to take my experience at Yoder to other students who hadn’t experienced that type of teaching,” she said.
Swartz learned firsthand about disparity in learning opportunities when her dad moved the family to Flint, Mich., to pastor a small mission church. The dramatic culture change from attending an all-Amish and Mennonite public school to a distressed public school didn’t dissuade her parents.
“They didn’t feel they had the luxury to stay in a safe place,” Swartz said. “They felt they should give back.”
Unlike the bucolic study environment in fields and under trees in Maryland where Alvina taught Swartz and her classmates, the Flint school windows looked out on parking lots and a playground surrounded by high fences. The students hadn’t experienced a safe and nurturing learning environment like Swartz had.
“The teachers in Flint were teaching under conditions that were harder than others,” she recalled. “I think I knew, even on a child’s level, that they didn’t teach well because of all of the hardships. I kept thinking, ‘What would Alvina do with these students?’”
Swartz, with her Mennonite upbringing, stood out from students who didn’t dress or think like her.
“I appreciated the friends in Flint who learned to see me first for who I was and not how I looked,” Swartz said. “I was trying to do that in my life–to not think I could look at someone and know about their lives by how they looked.”
Swartz took those life lessons to heart and carried them with her into her 30-year teaching career in London City Schools. She credits Alvina for instilling the wonder of learning in her, and in turn she wanted to help her students capture that same wonder.
The memoir contains a message near and dear to Swartz’s heart.
“It’s about our common struggle to find identity and belonging, to reach across differences toward relationship, and to learn from life, not just live it,” she said.
Alvina is still living, and Swartz plans to visit her to give her a copy of the book.
“I told her I wrote a book about her, and she wants to read it,” she said.
“Yoder School” can be purchased at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or cascadiapublishinghouse.com. To read Swartz’s blog about learning and teaching and to find out about upcoming book signings, visit phyllismillerswartz.com.