Image: Amish men
Mary Altaffer  /  AP
Amish men are seen in front of the schoolhouse where a gunman shot several students and himself in Nickel Mines, Pa., on Monday.
updated 10/4/2006 8:46:40 AM ET 2006-10-04T12:46:40

From the countryside they came, wending through the corn and alfalfa on foot and by buggy, leaving behind fields and flocks to seek solace in one another’s words and comfort in each other’s arms.

But when the Amish men and women of the Cattail District congregation gathered around a neighbor’s shed in the early evening coolness, it was not themselves they wept and prayed for. No, Rebecca Smoker says, the tears they shed were for the children — too young to comprehend what has been lost.

“You sorrow because the innocence is gone. They’re no longer going to be just children,” said Smoker, who raised six of her own here and now worries about the 23 grandchildren that have followed. “It’s not going to be the same again ever, I don’t think.”

In a community whose very existence is premised upon maintaining distance from the outside world, there is nothing more cherished by the Amish, or more vigilantly guarded, then the fragility of childhood.

So when a gunman laid siege to a one-room schoolhouse Monday, killing five Amish schoolgirls , this community suffered the most grievous kind of wound. It has forced people here to grapple with a world they cannot control.

“We know it happens,” Smoker says, of the violence and hatred of the larger world. “It just has never happened here.”

The Amish expect their children to learn about the world beyond their own. But as with any parents, they take great pains to control the way their youngest are introduced to that world, to always maintain a respectful distance.

Breaching their sanctuary
Now that world has invaded their own, confronting Amish parents with a truth they have long known. The delicate cocoon they have built around their children can hold back the world for only so long.

By Tuesday morning, Smoker says, her 8-year-old grandson already knew what had happened and declared he was too afraid to return to his own school. Another boy reasoned it out this way — his school is so far back in the countryside, no gunman could find him there.

The truth of what has happened particularly painful because the massacre took place inside a place the Amish consider almost a sanctuary.

In a community where the faithful meet in homes and there are few worldly possessions, the dozens of one-room schools that dot the rolling countryside are among the only public gathering places the Amish have. They invest themselves fully in the schools’ creation and use, said Mark Dewalt, a professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., who has visited scores of them as part of his research.

The Amish build each school themselves. Each August, he says, Amish families gather to clean the building, repair it and make it ready for the new year. After they complete their education, Amish teenagers return to the schoolyards in the evening to play volleyball and softball.

“It does function as the center of a community,” DeWalt said.

‘There is a coming together’
The strength of that community is central to life inside an Amish classroom, where children of all ages learn side-by-side. The lessons, though, are about more than just reading and writing and math, he says.

The Amish, he says, believe the schools are preparing their children for life in the eternal Heaven that awaits them.

The shootings have led many Amish to ponder what God has in store for them and their children.

It would be a mistake, though, to think their insulation from the outside world has left them ill-prepared for a crisis, say Amish and those who know them. While the community has been badly shaken, it remains intact, offering support and comfort.

When Brad Aldrich, a family counselor, was called to the school Monday to talk with students who had fled, he found children and adults in tears, holding each other. But to him the most remarkable thing about the Amish community is that it is unthinkable to suffer alone.

“There is a coming together,” Aldrich said. “That’s how they deal with everything. They come together.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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