Shunning--a Terrible punishment
I grew up in central Kansas in a zone dominated by Mennonite farmers. You have to understand that Mennonites come in several varieties of strictness, ranging from the Amish -- most strict, to what we called the Mennonites, who dressed like everybody else, went to school and university, and drove cars; but who automatically got C.O. status from the draft, and believed dancing was evil.
One of the in-between sects had a colony a few miles west of where I went to high school. They were definitely not Amish, because they had electricity and drove cars. But they did dress like the Amish. One local difference was that the baptized women of this sect tended to wear their hair done up in a black kercheif, rather than the stylized starched white bonnet that the Amish use. We had Amish communities too, so I was accustomed to seeing buggies among the cars.
These folks did not believe in education beyond the eighth grade, as farming was the only occupation considered "honorable" for them. They lived within their own little society, being cordial and transacting business with outsiders, but having all their social and networking and important relationships within the fold. They have much more of a worker bee mentality than the typical individualistic American. Your existence within their society is very family-oriented. Everyone knows what farm you come from and who your people are and what your place is. No one needs to "find themselves." It is a tightly knit and highly functional social organization that works pretty darn well, unless, like my soon-to-be friend (I'll call her Linda), you happen to yearn for something a little more intellectually stimulating than farming.
After completing eighth grade, Linda begged to be allowed to go to high school. Her parents thought it over and they decided that, since Linda was a smart girl, perhaps a little extra learning would suit her. They were adament: two years would be enough. Linda was to go to a small rural high school populated mainly by Mennonites just one or two grades lower on the strictness scale than they were. She wasn't likely to be corrupted by evil inner city influences. There were no computers or TV's in schools in those days. Linda was given the task of learning bookkeeping and home economics, to try to prepare her to be a better farmer's wife. But Linda had other plans. When the two years were up, Linda's parents withdrew her from school and put her to work on the farm. She slyly convinced them to let her get a job doing some bookkeeping for a local farm store so she could hang out in "town" more. They liked the money she brought in, as the family was not very wealthy. She was so good at it that she was often able to leave early. She killed time waiting for her ride home by standing slack-jawed outside the local TV store gaping at the TV sets which were left on until very late. Sometimes she nearly frostbit her fingers; such was her fascination with TV's and all things electrical.
The other thing she did while waiting to turn 18 was to study high school books with a view to getting her GED. She also enlisted the aid of one of her former high school teachers. The day she turned 18, Linda went in and took the GED and passed with flying colors. Her former high school teacher helped her apply for a scholarship. He wrote a letter explaining her situation and why she had a GED rather than a high school diploma. Linda received a scholarship to go to University. Alas, it was not a full ride, so she did not have the means to go to University right then and there. Linda had received a raise from the farm store owner, which she did not tell her parents about. She still turned over money to the family every week, but she started saving the extra in her own account for University. Plus she worked the rest of the time on her family's farm, and behaved as a good almost-Amish girl should.
Linda goes to University
About that time there was a terrible blow-up in the family. Linda's treachery at saving up her own money was found out. Plus she had no intention of marrying the farmer lad that had been picked out for her. She went off in a huff, taking her money, and enrolled herself in University to study electrical engineering.
You must understand what incredible cojones it took for her to leave her family and community like that. That is the time that I met Linda. We were freshmen at University together, she being a couple of years older than I due to the delay, but strangely naïve and innocent in the ways of the world. When we met we realized that we had gone to high schools four miles apart, and some of her cousins (strays from the sect, no doubt) had actually gone to my high school. Of course the first thing Linda did upon arriving on campus was to lose the black headscarf, get a stylish haircut and buy herself some jeans. At least she looked like everybody else. But she hadn't bargained for the intense aloneness she was to feel, and she was ill-prepared for it. Aloneness hits every college freshman to some degree, but not the way it hit Linda. Unbeknownst to me during that first year, Linda's family was obliged by their religion to shun her because she broke the rules.
Aloneness was much harder on her than a mainstream kid, because in the sect, they do everything communally and a person's sense of self is defined by who their family is. Not to mention that Linda was not accustomed to the way the "English" kids talked, listened to music, related to each other, or partied. She had no clue about popular culture, didn't really care for beer, and was actually a rather shy individual. The other girls in her dorm, being kind and caring people, just decided Linda was a little odd and aloof, and left her strictly to herself. Her family kept communication to a minimum, informing her only of births, deaths and weddings. No one except I knew that she had come from an old Mennonite family, and I was sworn to secrecy. She made up for a childhood bereft of television by becoming a Star Trek rerun addict. I swear that girl was in love with Spock. Her grades the first semester were not as stellar as she had hoped. Double E is demanding; television for her was a major time sink, and feelings of isolation are not conducive to excellent intellectual performance. Second semester we started to hang out more together and both our grades improved. I enjoyed Linda's outsider view on popular culture. She was intensely rational about everything, and was a dogged and determined problem solver. I enjoyed my role as her personal guide to all things normal about student life. We engaged in lively debates about religion. Linda had, in the way of the young, decided that all religion is oppressive and declared herself quite vocally to be an atheist. I wasn't so sure I'd take things that far.
We talked about the upcoming year, and we both decided to move to the big international dorm. I don't know why we didn't request each other as roommates but it didn't occur to us. During our sophomore year, Linda sought me out more and more, and it was clear to me that she was becoming sadder and disillusioned with the "modern" way of life. Her younger sister got married that fall, and Linda was not even allowed to be in the wedding. She had to sit in the back of the church. When she visited home, which was not often, she was not allowed at table with the family, they did not converse with her other than routine business, and basically treated her as an unwelcome boarder. I had plans to go abroad for the second half of my sophomore year, and several times Linda expressed to me wistfully that she wished I wouldn't. Being young and clueless, I was not picking up on just how important our friendship was to her. I went abroad as planned but we promised to write, and indeed we did. I received several letters from Linda during my foreign stint. The letters became increasingly sadder, and then there was a time when I didn't get any at all. It was only after I returned that I found that Linda had gone back to the sect and was engaged to marry a young farmer from up the road a piece.
When I had been back a while I got a letter from Linda. She wanted to visit me at my parents' when I was home from college. I said sure. When she arrived, what a change! She was back to the black kerchief and the frumpy longish cotton dresses typical of her sect. It was impossible for me to read all of her feelings but it was clear Linda was afraid I would think she was a great stupid git for returning to the sect. She tried explaining to me how she fit in so badly in the English world, but there was a niche custom made for her in her world if only she believed in the religion.
So, did you see God in a vision or something? I asked. Because remember YOU were the atheist of the two of us.
No, she said, but I can see God, or whatever you want to call Him, more clearly working through my people than I can through the English. My people are simple farmers. We grow food which people need in order to live. We sell what we don't eat and we use the money to buy the things we need that we can't grow. But we don't have the excesses of the main culture. I truly do believe that excess is the downfall of modern culture. Do you find that stupid?
No, I said. "Normal" people could learn a lot from your people. I just wish the religious rigidity wasn't part of the package. But I suppose you folks need that to maintain your separateness.
Linda, I said gently, I could tell that you were getting sadder and sadder from your letters. I want you to be in a place where you are happy. Does this make you happy?
She thought about it a long time, then she said, I am content.
I never saw her again.
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