(Don’t worry, they’re benign.)
My husband and I have been team-teaching Primary for a little over a year now. My husband has teaching Primary for the last…maybe five years. He’s a veteran–and an excellent Primary teacher. He used to teach with another gentleman, but then our ward split and he lost his teaching partner. Our ward is still enormous and can afford to call priesthood-holders to the Primary, but for some reason they thought it might be cute if they called me to teach with him. Or, you know, they felt “inspired” to do it or something. At any rate, I was not excited to accept the calling. In fact, when the bishopric counselor extended the call and asked me, “So how do you like that idea?” I said, “Actually, I don’t like it at all.” It was the thing I feared most (aside from being called as a Cub Scout den or Activity Days leader): having to serve directly with my husband in a calling that he was clearly better qualified to fulfill and magnify. That would cover just about every calling in the church, I think, since none of them yet require tap dancing. My husband and I are not competitive with each other. I mean, I’m not competitive with anyone, but I’m certainly not competitive with my husband, who is more talented and better liked than I am in just about every respect. No offense to him, but it’s hard enough living with him. I don’t really need to work with him too.
When I told Brother J that I’d need to think about this new calling, he said he understood my reluctance. But he was mistaken; he thought I just didn’t want to serve in Primary. Actually, I like Primary. I think it’s one of the better places to spend your time on Sunday. Granted, I haven’t always enjoyed all of my Primary callings. I was a pretty weak Primary chorister, and I made an even worse CTR 6 teacher back in 1998-99, but in my defense, I think I was suffering a nervous breakdown at the time. But I didn’t dislike Primary itself. Even at my most miserable (that would be January 1999, but I don’t want to talk about it), I enjoyed being around at least some of the kids (some of the time). If there’s anything I’ve learned by serving in Primary, it’s that I like kids. I like them a lot. Most kids don’t like me, but that’s to be expected. I’m kind of a drag. Also, I tend to have a flat affect, which is known in some circles as Serial Killer Look. It comes in handy sometimes, but making friends has been difficult. Especially with children, who seem to have a natural distrust of folks who might be serial killers.
The absolute best calling in Primary–best calling in the whole church, in my opinion–is Primary pianist, because you get to sit in there and witness all the antics and the hilarity and occasional cuteness of the kids, but you aren’t really responsible for any of them. Truly the best of both worlds. (Of course, if you are not a confident pianist, you will not be able to appreciate the awesomeness of this calling, which is why I recommend that everyone learn to play the piano well. But that’s another story.)
Teaching a primary class is a different ball of wax, of course. Responsibility galore there. For one thing, you have to make sure the kids stay inside the room and don’t run up and down the halls screaming. That’s an important part of the job. After a few years of substituting in Primary, I got pretty good at it. The keeping-kids-in-the-room part. Without using duct tape, I might add. (Not even once.) But I think my leaders may have been inspired to call me to teach Primary with my husband, who helped me ease into the job and let me trade on some of the natural good will that most children (and adults) have for him. Everyone loves Brother J. Most people agree that Sister J can be kind of scary, but if Brother J thinks she’s okay, maybe she won’t eat you. (He did try to intimidate our seven-year-olds into being reverent by telling them that I was a Golden Gloves champion in college. I think most of them believed him, even before I threw the first punch. I’m totally kidding, by the way. I never hit any kids. Not any of those kids, anyway.)
In January of this year we “moved up” and taught our first Senior Primary class, Valiant 10. (That would be ten-year-olds turning eleven, for those of you who can’t keep track of how the Church organizes these things.) I have really enjoyed teaching this age. Number one, they can all read. Number two, you can understand most of what they say without closed captioning. (This is even more important than number one.) Number three, they’re at a developmental stage where they can do higher forms of moral reasoning and engage the lesson more than younger kids can, but they’re still immature enough to goof off so things don’t get dull (like in Gospel Doctrine). As I’ve told friends in the ward, they’re just as silly as seven-year-olds, but in a cleverer way.
I have long had mixed feelings about the annual Primary sacrament meeting program. On the one hand, I do think it’s good for the kids to have experience speaking in front of the congregation–not so much because it’s educational, but because they like playing with the microphone. It’s a good time for them. And I think it’s good for the grown-ups to have to have a child-oriented worship meeting once in a while. (In my opinion, once a year is too infrequent, but no one asked my opinion, so we’ll leave it at that.) Certainly I have borne witness to Primary programs that were organized poorly and went on way too long. Way…too…long. That’s never good for anyone. But overall I think Primaries do well with their sacrament meeting programs, and I think most people find it a refreshing change of pace. (More refreshing than the annual Young Men and Young Women sacrament meetings, if you’ll excuse my obvious bias.)
On the other hand, I think the correlation of the annual sacrament meeting program has really hurt the children’s music program. The kids rarely get to sing any song that isn’t on the official list for that year’s program, and there are a hundred songs I can think of off the top of my head that never get used in the annual program and therefore never get sung and therefore never get learned, and it’s sad and it’s also kind of a drag. (It is also, incidentally, the worst part about being Primary pianist. There was a time when I thought if I had to play “I Lived in Heaven” one more time, I might pound my head into a bloody pulp on the keyboard.)
This year our Primary program went probably better than any Primary program I have ever seen. We have about 140 kids in our Primary. They don’t all fit on the stand, so some of them have to sit in chairs in front of the stand. Our class were some of the kids in chairs. There wasn’t enough room for both me and Brother J to sit with them, so I sat in the front pew directly across from them. My husband told the kids to sing extra good because he wanted to see tears streaming down their parents’ faces. Having put up with his nonsense for the last ten months and also being ten and eleven years old, they rolled their eyes at him.
This year I only had two kids in Primary. For the last couple years the older ones were still in Primary, they chose to have little participation in the sacrament meeting program. My older daughter, the one with Asperger’s Syndrome, had a good day if she didn’t run out of the chapel screaming. My older son used to be an enthusiastic singer, but then he turned seven. My younger son (now nine years old), who has autism, usually just stands up there and fidgets and stares at the congregation…and I think he talks to himself but I can’t tell about what from where I’m sitting. My younger daughter (now six) behaves herself but doesn’t usually sing–and doesn’t like it when you look at her. Traditionally, the Primary program has not been a sentimental affair for me. Once I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard at my older son (then under-seven) who had decided to bring the funk to an unusually rousing rendition of “Nephi’s Courage.” But for the most part, I usually just smile and keep my eyes dry.
This year was different. As I was sitting there watching my ten- and eleven-year-olds perform their speaking parts and singing the songs–actually singing–I started to get very emotional. I may have started sniffling. After almost a year of being shut up in a tiny room with them and listening to tales of their ten- and eleven-year-old lives–playing lacrosse and going to swim meets and buying puppies and visiting their grandparents and going to water parks and jumping off of roofs onto trampolines and then bouncing into swimming pools and almost getting concussions–and trying to keep their attention long enough to discuss Book of Mormon stories with them and hoping they’ll get the point or the gist of the point, and taking them out to the parking lot to pick blackberries when there’s not enough lesson to fill the time, and putting up with their constant potty jokes and occasional Ninja moves, it’s been slowly dawning on me that I don’t have much time left with them before they move on, and I’m really going to miss them. Some of them more than others, sure, but even the one I think I’m not so fond of I actually do like. They’re all just great kids, even when they’re being rotten. One of them I just want to gather up into my arms and give him noogies every time I see him, the turkey. Man, I love those guys.
Long story short, I had to look at my own kids (the ones I gave birth to) to keep from blubbering like a little girl. (I have some street cred to uphold.)
Usually the boys in our class are too busy defacing the bulletin board in the back of the Primary room to participate in singing time, but it was clear on Sunday that they’d managed to learn all the songs for the program. Even if they couldn’t manage to sing them on key. Personally, I think most Primary songs sound better when they’re sung by a bunch of untrained kids who can barely carry a tune but still belt it out with confidence. It’s a sound that warms my heart. (It’s not always easy on the ear drums, I admit.) These are just normal old kids–they talk too loudly during sharing time, they don’t like opening their scriptures when we tell them too, and they include flatulence in gospel discussions way more than is strictly appropriate–but they’re good kids, learning to choose the right. They’re lucky kids, surrounded by adults who care about their moral and spiritual well-being–not just their parents, but a community of Primary workers, most of whom are much better people than I am. I doubt any of them will grow up to be apostles and speak in General Conference about their dear old Primary teacher, Sister J. But probably most of them will remember my husband. And I’m glad I didn’t turn down this calling (as I had been tempted at first) because even though I’m not that great at it, and kids still don’t like me that much, I’m happy to report that I really, really, really like them anyway. And though in a way I want to hold them right where they are in all their goofiness and innocence, I’m also looking forward to seeing how they turn out (no thanks to me).
The more time I spend with kids, the more I understand God’s mercy. And believe in it too.