Common Ground

Southridge High School senior Gina Flores runs to first base as Oak Ridge Amish School seventh-grader Janet Wagler fields the ball during the annual softball game at Oak Ridge Amish School near Odon on April 16. The Oak Ridge team of seventh- and eighth-graders defeated the Southridge seniors 21-11.

Story by Olivia Ingle

Photos by Sarah Ann Jump

On the outside, they couldn’t look more different.

T-shirts, athletic shorts, sweat pants and jeans for one team.

Members of the other team wore trousers, collared shirts, dresses and bonnets.

The first team’s transportation — a yellow school bus — sat on the gravel road nearby. The second team’s buggies were unhitched in the schoolyard, their horses tied up in a barn on the property.

One team is accustomed to a world of technology. The other not.

But, during a day meant to bridge the gap between the English and Amish cultures, the kids, seemingly from two different worlds, formed a connection that many of them won’t forget. A connection through song. And through sport. The sport of softball.

Southridge High School teacher Brett Bardwell, also the school’s athletic director, has been taking his Southridge senior psychology and sociology students on an annual field trip to the Oak Ridge Amish School in Odon’s Amish country for more than 15 years. He started the tradition about 30 years ago when he taught at Franklin High School.

The day culminates in a softball game between the two schools — the Southrige seniors versus the Oak Ridge seventh- and eighth-graders.

It’s a rivalry that’s strengthened through the years. A rivalry made stronger by the relationship forged.

One of the first years Bardwell took his Franklin students to the Amish school, he met a seventh-grader named Norman Graber.

Most of the Amish kids were shy. But not Norman.

After the field trip was over, Norman wrote Bardwell asking if he would bring his students to Norman’s parents’ farm the next time they visited the school.

Bardwell wasn’t so sure of the request, but Norman kept writing him.

So, the teacher eventually visited Norman at his home one summer and attended a youth prayer meeting with the teen.

From that point on, he and Norman have been friends, even attending each others’ weddings. Bardwell added a stop at Norman’s parents’ house to the annual trip, and now since Norman has a family of his own, the class visits his house, which includes a farm and the family’s business, Graber Farm Supply.

“We get to do things these kids will probably never get to do again,” Bardwell said of visiting Norman’s and Oak Ridge. “Getting access inside their home, their school, and gaining their trust.”

The field trip ties in to lessons on cultures and subcultures in Bardwell’s sociology class.

Southridge High School senior Ceara Baker gasps as she spots an Amish horse and buggy driving down the road as the school bus passes through Amish country.

“I’ve learned a lot myself over the years,” Bardwell said. “Years ago, you just didn’t feel comfortable. Now, with Norman, we tease and joke with him.”

The trust between the two was evident April 16 when Norman, his wife Mary Sue, and their two oldest kids, Leanna and Dallas, hosted Bardwell and his students for a tour.

Norman’s home and business are less than a mile from Oak Ridge, which his three other kids — Marsha, 12, Marcus, 10, and Dena, 8 — attend during the day. Both Leanna and Dallas graduated from Oak Ridge after the eighth grade, which is typical for Amish schooling.

The Grabers shared with the students the Amish way of life, and encouraged the teens to ask questions.

Norman shared that the family’s home has no electricity. They have an outdoor furnace that heats their hot water, and they have propane lights affixed to their home’s walls. If it’s real warm outside, they use battery-powered lights.

When asked about the family’s faith, Norman said there’s no such thing as an Amish religion.

“Amish is our way of life,” Norman said. “Christianity is our religion.”

The Amish also don’t believe in the use of technology, except when it comes to business. For instance, Norman can use a cellphone for business, however, it cannot be a smartphone and cannot have internet.

“Technology, there’s no end to it,” he said, adding that he sees technology leading to violence because people are wrapped up in their phone or video games and not focused on their relationships.

“You lose your conscience and heart for fellow man,” he said. “I think that’s where violence comes from.”

Like any Amish, the Grabers are focused on family.

They eat a big breakfast, lunch and supper together every day, most of which is made by Mary Sue. They read devotions and sometimes sing in the mornings before the men head out to work.

In the evenings, they enjoy reading. Norman also enjoys mushroom hunting, which he had done the Saturday before.

When it comes to marriage, the Amish don’t believe in divorce. Norman said they usually get married between the ages of 19 and 21. But, there’s no rush.

“We enjoy every step of life,” he said.

The Grabers know the Amish way of life is unique, but they appreciate the English lifestyle for what it is.

“We view it with respect,” Norman said, “because it’s our choice to live the way we do. It’s also your choice.”

Oak Ridge Amish School students drive Southridge High School students from Norman Graber’s farm to the school in horse and buggies.

Following the tour of the Graber home and farm, several Oak Ridge students drove horse and buggies to the property to take the Southridge students for a ride.

During some down time after the horse and buggy rides, Southridge senior Robbie Bradley sat with her friends off to the side and reflected on what she had learned so far that day.

“They really aren’t that different than us,” she said of the Amish.

Her friend, Grace Jewell, added: “I’ve met Amish people, but never socialized with them. They’re more like us than anything.”

The students then headed to Oak Ridge, less than a mile up the gravel road from the Grabers’. The Amish students were waiting on them. They look forward to Southridge’s visit all school year.

Shortly after the school bus pulled up in front of the white, two-room schoolhouse, Bardwell stood near the door and took in the fresh air and sights of the countryside.

“It’s amazing the simplicity of their life,” he said, looking out over the schoolyard with Amish farms in the distance. “I get out here and am so relaxed.”

The Southridge visitors were invited inside and sat down on a bench in the back of the room. The classroom looked like a typical classroom, but lacked more modern amenities. A chalkboard hung across the wall at the front of the room with the alphabet displayed above it. Rows of desks spanned the room, which housed fourth- through eighth-graders.

Teacher Nelson Graber’s desk sat in the front right of the room, a door behind it displayed The Lord’s Prayer. Windows spanned the two outer walls. A door at the back of the room led to a second classroom for first through third grade.

After introductions, the Amish students lined up at the front of the classroom and sang two songs — “My Sheep Know My Voice” and “Thank You Lord.” The songbooks in their hands and various harmonies they sang made it apparent they had sung the songs before.

The Southridge students were a bit less polished. They started with the “Southridge Fight Song,” before Bardwell teased he was going to sing a solo.

Instead, students in the Southridge choir sang “A Million Dreams” from “The Greatest Showman,” before the entire group finished with “Country Road Take Me Home,” which the students had sung a bit to pass time on the bus ride earlier in the morning.

Southridge High School students sing the “Southridge Fight Song” to the Amish students in the fourth- through eighth-grade classroom at Oak Ridge Amish School. Students from the first- through third-grade class joined, sharing desks with the older students.

In addition to softball, singing is another way the two groups find common ground on the trip.

“We appreciate the friendship we have between our school and your school,” Bardwell said following the performance.

It was then time for lunch in the schoolyard. Both the Oak Ridge and Southridge students brought packed lunches and sat together to eat.

Bardwell sat in the grass with some Oak Ridge students. Before long, he and Lucas Raber, 10, had exchanged hats. Lucas wore Bardwell’s ball cap, and Bardwell Lucas’ straw hat. The duo joked with one another and kept each others’ hats through lunch and much of the afternoon.

Finally, it was time to play softball.

The school has three diamonds — the main one sits just down from the school’s basketball court. At first glance, one wouldn’t even notice it. It does have a metal backstop, but not a chainlink one most commonly found on softball diamonds. There’s no fence and no real baseline. The only indication it’s a field are worn dirt paths in the grass leading to first, second and third base, and then to home plate. A small dirt area serves as the pitcher’s mound.

Oak Ridge’s first through sixth grades sat along the sidelines to watch the older kids play. Some of the students’ mothers and siblings even came to watch the game.

The Amish students play softball during recess every day.

Oak Ridge Amish School seventh-grader Rebecca Lengacher tags out Laney Bardwell, 10, at home plate as Southridge senior Shelby Worden waits to bat during the softball game. Brett Bardwell’s two daughters, Laney and Ellie, accompanied the high schoolers on the field trip.

“It’s something that everyone can play and be included,” said Judith Graber, who teaches first through third grade at the school. “It can get competitive.”

While the game between Oak Ridge and Southrige was competitive, it was friendly competition.

Southridge started with a “Here we go Raiders” chant, but the Amish students remained relatively quiet, that is, until Southridge made any type of error, and the young Amish girls shrieked.

Southridge’s team included Tucker Schank and Logan Seger, who both play for the Southridge baseball team, and Gina Flores, who plays on the Raider softball team.

Even with the expertise, the Southridge seniors found themselves trailing Oak Ridge fairly early in the ball game.

With the score at 14-4 late in the game, Bardwell called a timeout for a pep talk and attempted to rally some Raider pride.

“Let’s dig in here,” he said. “I know you’re not good. Bless your hearts, try your best.”

The Southridge team huddles before the final inning of the game.

Following that timeout, Schank hit an out-of-the-park home run, however, the Raiders still found themselves struggling.

Bardwell joked to Oak Ridge: “Can you please put your subs in?”

Southridge rallied a bit in the end, but fell short 21-11, and Oak Ridge secured the traveling trophy yet again.

After shaking hands and saying good-bye to their new friends, it was time for the Southridge seniors to head home.

Judith Graber reflected on what the day meant for her students.

“It really gives them a look into different lives,” she said.

Southridge senior Brandon Grindle was surprised at how good the Amish students were at softball, and was grateful for the experience.

“You don’t have to have technology to have fun and have a sense of community,” he said. “I felt more connected today than ever.”

Oak Ridge Amish School fourth-grader Lucas Raber and Southridge High School teacher Brett Bardwell chat over lunch after the two traded hats at Lucas’ suggestion.

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