We bow our heads and close our eyes (and hope no one calls on us)

So I’m still a Primary teacher. Nobody’s fired me yet. I have the eight-year-olds this year. It is a bit of an adjustment after teaching the ten-year-olds. Most of my teaching experience is in junior Primary, but that’s not saying a lot. I was never any good at teaching junior Primary (although I like being around junior Primary-age children). My husband and I taught the ten-year-olds for a whole year, and I’m afraid it made me a bit soft. All the kids could read, and their silliness was tempered by their need to appear cool. Also, you could say stuff like, “Listen up, jerks,” without crushing their tender little spirits. Eight-year-olds are different. They’re only a little less silly than six-year-olds. They also only read a little bit better than six-year-olds. So reading from the scriptures is more challenging for them. I mean, it was clearly torture for the ten-year-olds, but ten is a good age to start boring kids to death, I think. Just a little bit, so they have a solid foundation for being bored in Sunday School later on. But I feel bad doing that to eight-year-olds. They’re still so cute.

So yeah, I’ve had to alter my lesson-giving style a bit. My husband isn’t teaching with me anymore, so my charisma has dropped about 20 points, and that’s tough too. But I persevere. Which brings me back to my original point, that I was teaching Primary a couple Sundays ago and I needed someone to give an opening prayer, but nobody wanted to do it. The kid who gave it the week before didn’t want to do it two weeks in a row, and that was certainly fair. But everyone else refused to. That’s the difference between eight-year-olds and six-year-olds. Six-year-olds still like to pray. Well, if they’ve recently finished being five, anyway. Most kids that age will do anything to be at the center of attention. When I taught CTR6, the kids would fight over who said the prayer. (Unfortunately, they would fight over sitting there and listening to a lesson too, but that’s another story.) Eight-year-olds aren’t quite that desperate. And unlike ten-year-olds, they haven’t accepted the inevitability of praying in church whether they want to or not. Hence the refusals.

Now, if my husband had been there, he would have just randomly picked a kid and said, “Come on, give us a prayer. Come on. Just a short one. It’ll be fun. Go ahead. We’re waiting,” until the kid realized that Brother J just wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Brother J can get away with that behavior because the kids love him. Kids don’t love me. To be honest, kids don’t even like me. Heck, most adults have to know me for a couple years before I stop giving them the creeps. The kids in my Primary classes don’t have a couple years with me; they only get one. I still think half of the eleven-year-olds I taught last year would rather not run into me in a dark alley, but this isn’t the same as kids fearing me. I’d settle for them fearing me–in fact, that might be kind of awesome–but instead they just strongly distrust me. So no one’s going to say a prayer just to please me (or appease me).

What this means is that for the last couple weeks I’ve been saying the opening prayer because I’m the only one who can’t say no. I mean, I could say no, but that would be setting a bad example, and I don’t want to do that. Also, even if I were constitutionally capable of persuading/cajoling/forcing one of the kids to pray, I’m just not willing to do that. I didn’t like saying the prayer when I was a kid, and I kind of resented anyone who made me do it. I mean, I still kind of resent it when my husband calls on me to pray. Sure, it’s mostly because I think he enjoys the power trip too much, but it’s also because I’m just not a big fan of praying out loud.

Most of that is I’m not a big fan of talking out loud, period, because I lack conversational skills and I have difficulty maintaining my train of thought once my jaw starts yammering. If I’m going to make a phone call, I have to rehearse in my mind what I’m going to say first—rehearse it several times, usually, or I don’t have any hope of remembering (most of) it when it’s time for me to actually say it. If I’m going to give a talk, I can’t work from notes. I will never remember what the notes mean once I start speaking. Once I start speaking, the brain stops working. If I haven’t memorized what I’m going to say, to the point where it can fall automatically from my lips without me thinking about it, I’m pretty much screwed. To be honest, I have no idea how I graduated from college. I’m not sure how I graduated high school. I never had an oral exam—I guess that’s how. I do very poorly with spontaneous questions. That’s why I’m a terrible interview. That’s why I’ll probably never have another job again as long as I live. I think very clearly as long as I’m only thinking. When I start saying what I’m thinking out loud, I’m no longer thinking at all. It’s not a recipe for clear communication.

That’s a big part of why I don’t like praying in public. I still do it, because it’s hard to have church if no one’s going to pray. So I’ll pray in church if somebody asks me. I’ll say a very short prayer because I can only pre-load so many words onto my tongue. I can’t be expected to come up with new words as I go on. In theory, the Spirit would move me, but in practice that hasn’t been my experience. Unless the Spirit just really wants me to shut up. I’m open to that possibility. But I digress. I don’t like praying in public because I don’t like speaking in public, or speaking at all. I also don’t like praying in public because I consider sincere prayer to be a very personal thing. I feel very self-conscious talking to God while everyone else is listening in. Not that I kid myself that most people are listening, really. I reckon most of them are just waiting for the “amen” at the end. Still, it’s the principle. But again, it’s hard to have church if no one’s going to pray. I guess we could all pray silently to ourselves, but I don’t think that’s ideal. Sometimes we need to hear the prayers of others. Like when you’re opening a class and you need to invite the spirit to be with you (in case it feels like showing up).

So I will probably continue to say all the opening prayers in our class, as long as no one else wants to do it. I hope the kids don’t notice that I rely on a lot of vain repetitions (although I am proud to say that I’ve never uttered the phrases “harm or accident” or “nourish and strengthen”–that would just make me feel like an idiot). Maybe I’ll throw in an occasional “please bless us not to walk on the chairs” or “bless us not to climb out the window,” just to mix things up. And maybe I’ll bring Hershey’s kisses and give one to whoever is willing to say the prayer because I like Hershey’s kisses, and I think I’m worth it.

Comments

  1. Lamplighter says:

    I think you may have a good idea with the Hershey’s kisses, I’d do it for that.

  2. Run, Jesus, run! says:

    Once, when I was still a young and impressionable primary kid, our teacher was helping another very shy girl say the closing prayer by whispering exactly what to ask for in her ear. But when the teacher whispered “Please bless we won’t run in the halls” my classmate prayed “Please don’t run in the halls.” I then had a perfect mental image of Heavenly Father running down the hallway of the church, white robe hiked up to his knees, curly beard flowing out behind Him, shouting “Wheeee!!!!” until He heard that prayer and had to cease His irreverent running amok. That moment has defined my relationship to God ever since.

  3. Now if the Seventy would just act more like your ten-year-olds, then maybe we’d finally get a woman to pray in GC!

    Yeah, I bring food for my 14/15 year old Sunday school class…it does wonders on many fronts. :)

  4. RJ, I could read you all day.

  5. David Elliott says:

    I’m with SteveP. What you may lack in conversational skill, you more than make up for in writing skill. Many times over.

  6. My favorite opening prayer is one I heard in RS. A new convert gave it and she knew Sister C. was teaching. Sister C, is a notorious weeper. The convert prayed that Sister C. would not cry this week. It was fantastic!

    Of course, is made Sister C. cry.

  7. I might consider praying if it was acceptable in our church to prepare for the prayer and to make notes, but it’s not. It is very acceptable in other churches to do so, including the Catholic church. I don’t mind one bit talking in church, but I just want some notes on what I want to say.

  8. bethanyanddaniel says:

    Keep writing, fer sure.
    Oh primary. I just got called back to teaching the 11 yos, and they are a delight to teach after my last time in primary (4-5 yos). Good luck. It can be really hard!

  9. The good thing about eight-year-olds is that they’re newly *accountable*. You can totally hold that over their heads.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    In my GD class, when I ask for a volunteer to give the closing prayer, I generally have to wait about ten seconds for someone to finally do it. (I don’t bother with an opening prayer.)

  11. malimormon says:

    I haven’t tried this with primary kids, but for the youth I announce that whoever gives the opening prayer gets to chose who says the closing prayer, and that usually prompts a volunteer.

  12. When I was 14 or 15 I got called on to say the prayer in my Sunday School class and I froze in the middle of it. My mind went completely blank, and the longer the silence went on, the more I panicked and the blanker (Safari seems to think “blanker” is a real word. Can that be right?) my mind went, until finally the teacher whispered to me—as though I were a primary child—”in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

    So humiliating.

    And in front of the mean girls too.

    I was too terrified to pray in church meetings for 5 years after that; whenever I was called on I would say no. Which was also humiliating, not to mention unsustainable. I used to wish I could get disfellowshipped so that I wouldn’t be allowed to pray at church. But I had no such convenient excuse, and I was too much of a good girl to do anything about it, so instead I spent most of my teenage years inactive.

    I might not volunteer to say a prayer for Hershey’s Kisses, but I’d at least consider it. Chocolate is much better than guilt.

  13. Great essay.

    That actually is a great age to have them each serve as class president for a month at a time. The president makes the prayer assignments, greets visitors, does errands like run for more chalk.

    Since they know they will each have a turn, they are willing to pray to help out a friend. Hmmn, a lot of what we do in church is to help out a friend, so not a bad thing to learn.

  14. I would totally bring Prayer Treats, that are only served if you aren’t giving any of the prayers. The kids who volunteer get double. It’s only bribery if you’re trying to get them to do something they shouldn’t.

    We’d also have an occasional mini-lesson on prayer protocol in church, correlated by me.

    Also, re #7, I guarantee some of those Brethren who are called on to pray in general conference have thought (a lot) about it beforehand and made (a lot of) notes that they probably have memorized.

    Once I agreed to give the closing prayer in sacrament meeting, and the meeting turned out to be really inspiring for me, and I got all choked up singing the closing song, and I could hardly speak during the prayer. *That* was embarrassing.

  15. Peter LLC says:

    I would keep the chocolate in reserve until one of them unwittingly volunteers to say a prayer. Immediately following the “amen,” shower the volunteer with candy like manna from heaven. Then sit back and watch the kids fight over who gets to say the prayer ever after.

  16. I usually assign prayers in alphabetical order when teaching kids, or age order when it’s my own kids. Somehow they are always willing to take their turn when they know they won’t have a turn for awhile and that everyone else will have to do it as well. It also stops the fighting amongst the youngest set b/c they know exactly whose turn it is.

    #7 – I knew a lady who got very nervous when giving prayers in public. She’d write them out and read them. They weren’t flourish-y, just very thoughtful and heartfelt (maybe it helped that she read as if she were praying, not as if she were reading, does that make sense?). She also spent years writing out her VTing lesson. Again, it came across as the most thoughtful, sincere, well-prepared lesson I’ve heard. It wasn’t mechanical and you could tell she’d spent a good amount of time thinking about the lesson and what she wanted to say.

  17. I hate praying in public. I seriously struggle with praying during family prayers. My mind goes completely blank and all I can think is “We’re thankful for this day.” People are actually always telling me that I talk like a teenager (I’m in my 30′s) and I know I sound like a child when I pray. The worst is in Primary presidency meetings because I feel so much pressure to give a meaningful prayer and seriously can’t think of anything beyond, “bless us to meet the children’s needs.” I totally try the avoid-eye-contact method, but in a group of 4 people, there’s nowhere to hide. My personal prayers are very conversational and that doesn’t translate well to public prayer. I’ve tried reminding myself that I’m a mouthpiece for everyone there and I need to consider what needs to be petitioned for by the group as a whole, but I don’t have enough time to really think about it well. I really envy people that can give thoughtful, beautiful, sincere prayers.

  18. I give an amen to Naismith’s comment. A rotating class president would be great for that age.

  19. Rebecca, you are so funny! I wish I knew you in real life.

  20. rameumptom says:

    I’m all for bribing people to do the right thing. Praying or speaking in public is very difficult for many people, and can seem daunting and punishing. But if you apply a reward (Hershey’s Kisses are good, though I prefer dark chocolate), then the daunting task seems more appealing.

  21. Once I start speaking, the brain stops working. If I haven’t memorized what I’m going to say, to the point where it can fall automatically from my lips without me thinking about it, I’m pretty much screwed. To be honest, I have no idea how I graduated from college. I’m not sure how I graduated high school. I never had an oral exam—I guess that’s how. I do very poorly with spontaneous questions. That’s why I’m a terrible interview. That’s why I’ll probably never have another job again as long as I live. I think very clearly as long as I’m only thinking. When I start saying what I’m thinking out loud, I’m no longer thinking at all. It’s not a recipe for clear communication.

    Me too, Rebecca. Me too.

  22. And I don’t know how to close quotes. It’s amazing I’ve lived this long.

  23. Peter (15) – Actually, my plan is to just keep saying the prayer myself and eat the chocolate in front of them until they start begging me to let them pray.

  24. Meldrum the Less says:

    Campers in the shelters in the Smokey Mountains might notice thick metal straps on the concrete floor in front of them. In the past large heavy metal doors were attached similar to jail cells which allowed campers to lock the bears out of the shelters at night. This is of only mild academic interest until you hear the low growl of a bear out in the dark while sitting around a campfire with a dozen scouts miles from the car and watch them dive desperately into the shelter knowing a black bear can get anywhere a scout can get. You begin to question your commitment to scouting and image what if……(Referring to a personal experience last Saturday night.)

    Bear with me on this. So why did they take the metal doors off? Because campers used to close them and then feed the bears through them. It must have been really fun. Until one morning you notice about 10 or 20 bears lined up out there for breakfast and you are running kinda low on food.

    Feeding children at church is like this. We went through it with our children and at first it seemed like such a great idea but later it caused enough problems that it was definitely not worth it. What happens when you stop? What about when they get old enough for early morning seminary? What message are you sending about church, devotion or recreation? What about giving Oreo cookies to black kids at a mostly white church? Did you think of that? What happens when one is a closet diabetic and starts using his disease in a power struggle with his parents? At the very least make the parents bring the treats in rotation so that they know and you discover and avoid some of the problems.

    What has happened in the LDS church is that we really haven’t taught the children how to pray. And I submit this is because we adults really don’t know how to pray publicly in church. Most of our prayers are repetitive, meaningless cliches. When you instinctively don’t want to do this, maybe your subconscious is telling you this isn’t right. I never realized this until I heard a Protestant minister recently pour out his soul while kneeling at the pulpit and voiced some of my deepest concerns. Maybe it was all a fake show but it opened my mind to the possibility of another dimension.

    Perhaps really small children saying cute things for attention is a prayer in the broadest sense and perhaps it is too much to expect the slightly older ones to really get it. As a teacher you could take this opportunity to do better than the vain repetitions that surround every Mormon meeting and teach these few children to really pray, by example every week. Reach for the stars. Children might remember a pious teacher years later who really did know how to pray. I doubt they will remember much from that correlated manual you have at your disposal (which I found essentially useless when I was teaching primary but that is another matter).

  25. I don’t have a problem thinking and praying, but I sure loved this essay. It reminds me of my own minor difficulties. Keep up the good work!

  26. Maybe you could start mentioning the kids by name in your prayers. That will perk up their ears and get them listening. I also have nothing against a little bribery at that age. Although I like the idea of just giving the chocolate to whoever has prayed without ever promising the reward or having a discussion about it. You wouldn’t have to do it every time, just often enough that the kids are willing to take the risk. After all, isn’t the gospel based on a reward system? You do the right thing because it’s the right thing, but often the blessings follow!

  27. Dave Frandin says:

    I read your fifth paragraph, where you admit to “not being a big fan of talking out loud”.. I read that whole paragraph and is soooo *me* .. When I was a teen, back in the late 60s, and I got called to give a 2 1/2 min talk in Sacrament meeting, I would write the whole talk out, and, with my eyes glued to the paper, I’d read it, never taking my eyes off the paper, cuz if I looked up at the congregation, I was done.. Panic sets in, mouth stops working, and all that comes out are incoherant sounds.. Since I had been inactive in the Church from about 1969 until about 2 years ago, I never have had a call to do public speaking again.. Now that i’m active again, its only a matter of time before the bishop decides to pounce on me, not knowing what he’s letting himself (and the ward) in for….

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