Reflections on the Primary program

(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.


  1. I’ve been in five wards in the last five years (three in just the last year due to a move and a ward boundaries change) and in four of those five wards I’ve been called to serve in the primary. Lonely place for the new guy in the ward. The upside, however, is I find out the dirt on families in the ward. 11-year-old terrors with stake presidency and EQP fathers, and 5-year-olds who tell you everything about their family life, appropriate or not. Any facade of perfect families is quickly destroyed.

    I love teaching primary (well, as long as they’re not 11-year-old boys). But I’m not a fan of the calling, as it severely limits the interaction I have at church with other men, and I’m not a fan of sharing time. But at least the kids are a lot of fun in class.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Charming, as always.

    My wife’s preferred spot in the church is teaching Primary (but not in leadership). She’s good at it, and the kids love her, and the feeling’s mutual. If they ever try to make her go to RS, I think she may finally go full-on inactive.

  3. Rebecca J.,

    Loved this and loved the primary program too. I don’t know you but you are seriously my favourite in the bloggernacle. Faint praise but still. . . . You should write something longer and submit it to the New Yorker since you have that funny-while-imparting wisdom thing down than David Sedaris does–though you do it a good deal better. And he manages to publish there w/ some frequency and they must be looking for an authentic Mormon voice that would be palatable to their readers (since Neil LaBute gave up the crown).

  4. Your assessment of the primary piano calling is spot on. I’d only add you have to be a confident player and not necessarily a good one. Primary kids are great at singing a capella. All the fun and very little work. The last primary pianist was in her calling for 6 years, and she was released only on account of a ward boundary change. I expect to be quite comfortable behind the piano for some time :)

  5. Wonderful post, Rebecca. I identify with much of what you say, particularly your observations about being Primary pianist. I recently managed to secure that calling for the second ward in a row; I never even had to set foot in an adult class in my new ward. It’s the way church was meant to be.

  6. Great post, Rebecca! You alternate so well between making me want to laugh and cry! And I mean that in the best possible way. I always enjoy your writing, but this post is a particular gem.

  7. Another vote for primary pianist being the best calling. In fact, the very best time was when I played piano and my wife led singing time as newlyweds. We got to hang out together for the whole three hours.

  8. Thanks to everyone for their kind words.

    Tim (1) – I sympathize on the count that Primary callings are super-isolating for men. Serving as a Primary teacher can be isolating for women too (since, unlike the presidency members and the chorister, you really only interact with the kids in your class), but I imagine it’s even more so for men, since they are a distinct minority. My husband enjoys teaching Primary, but he misses interacting with the men in the ward, so it’s great now that we teach Sr. Primary, which has sharing time the third hour, so I can babysit the Valiant 10s while he goes to Elder’s Quorum. (We switch off every other week.) After being there for five years, I think he’s ready to move on, but I’m not sure I’m ready to do it by myself yet.

    Hurrah (4) – It’s true that you only have to be confident, not expert. The kids can’t tell the difference, and frankly most of the leaders can’t either–but if you’re an insecure pianist, all you can think about is how many wrong notes you play. You just have to be able to relax and enjoy it.

    Kevin (2) – I know a lot of women who feel the same way your wife does. Actually, our current RS president used to be one of them. (Happily, she didn’t go inactive and has learned to love RS too. Not that I would wish that calling on your wife, or any woman!)

    I’m afraid that in my haste to write this post, I made it sound like my husband’s awesomeness has been a tremendous burden for me. Well, actually…it kind of has. But I assure you that when I say stuff like “it’s hard enough living with him,” I’m being facetious. I enjoy living with him at least as much as I enjoy teaching Primary. (Except when he’s being a turkey, and I don’t have the option of sending him to his mom.)

  9. J. Stapley says:

    Loved this post. And you give me hope. But 130 kids? HOLY CRAP. That sort of pushed me over the edge. We have about 35 or so, small enough that each kid writes his or her own bit for the program. I really enjoy it when they do that.

  10. Yes, a smaller Primary has its advantages. In our Primary, they have to ration the speaking parts. (One speaking party per family per year–by the time you graduate, you should have gotten the chance to speak in the program at least once. Maybe even 2 or 3 times!) It is great when the kids can write their own material, but that’s not feasible with a group as big as ours. Sometimes the enormity of our Primary is overwhelming and frustrating, but on the other hand, there is plenty of energy! It’s kind of exciting.

  11. I enjoyed reading your reflections. Our Primary Presentation is at the end of this month and I am looking forward to it even as I can’t wait for it to be over.

    madhousewife, men don’t have to be a minority in Primary. Our Primary teacher ratio is 2:1 in favor of men. But yes, it can be isolating. However, instead of thinking that those of us in Primary are missing out on what’s going on in the rest of the ward, I like to think that the rest of the ward is missing out on what’s going on in Primary. So many good things happen in Primary.

  12. Other Bridget (11) – Wowzers, 2:1. Well, edit that to say “in many cases.” We have quite a few male Primary teachers in our ward, and all of the men I know who have served in Primary have enjoyed it, but they do tend to get a little lonely in there. Primary is, I think, way more interesting than anything else going on in church during that time, but adults still crave adult interaction, which you don’t get much of as a Primary teacher. It’s important that we make time for interacting with our fellow (and sister) ward members outside the three-hour block. (But I agree that if you’re stuck in a 3-hour block, Primary is a great place to be.)

  13. I just love these WordPress quirks. On BCC I’m logged in as “madhousewife,” but on my own blog, which I checked just now, I’m logged in as “Rebecca.” How does that even work???

  14. Another vote for the primary pianist. It was my favorite calling ever and I held it in a couple of different wards for a few years, but I am a terrible piano player! The stress level of those primary programs where I had to play in front of the congregation practically gave me heart attacks, but the week to week calling of being able to sit there and watch the kids while plunking away was great!

  15. “Why the Church is a True as the Gospel”… One issue with the correlated primary program is that it assumes everyone throughout the world will have someone who plays the piano or can read music or has electricity to play CDs. The ward I was in in Guatemala had none of those. I helped as I could (I do play piano), but there wasn’t enough time to do much.
    Thanks, Rebecca. This is a lovely post.

  16. Great post and I have to agree. For nearly 3 years, I was YM President. We had 60-70 YM during most of that time (generally around 20 deacons, 25 teachers and 25 priests). There were meetings and lessons and service and youth conferences and many responsibilities that took up a lot of time. Then, a few years ago, I was called as a Primary teacher. It was a wonderful break from the demands of my prior calling. I’ve spend half that time teaching by myself for some reason or another (with promises every few weeks that they would find me a “team teacher”), and also taught with my wife part of the time. I thought that was a great calling until recently when I got an even better calling – Primary pianist. We, too, have 120-140 Primary kids, with a Jr and Sr Primary. We have 2 sharing times, so I get to spend 2 hours in Primary, reading a book behind the piano for half time time and playing the piano the other half. Luckily, I can sight-read essentially all of the Primary songs, so it is literally a no-stress calling. I go to sacrament mtg for an hour and I’m done for the week. I absolutely love my calling now and hope to be there for years…

    I do understand the part about not being with the men. Because of my YM and Primary callings back-to-back, I haven’t been to my own quorum for years and years. We were at dinner with some friends a few months back and I jokingly related that I didn’t even know who was the president of my quorum. Ironically, it was one of the men at dinner with me. But although it’s been years since I have been “with the men”, I don’t care. I love kids and would rather stay there.

    Great post.

  17. One more vote for Primary pianist. If you think about it, how amazing is it that within minutes you can have a whole room full of kids bouncing around singing “Do As I’m Doing” and switch to singing “I Am A Child of God” in a way you can tell they believe it.

  18. wow…! I never knew primary was this interesting.
    I’d always run from their classes – noise, tears, & then being but off from adult communications.
    Now, I have kids, my wife teaches primary, I hear stories (like this post), and oh, how I wish took the primary calling then… I envy you guys.

  19. Sharee Hughes says:

    We have 140 or so Primary kids in our ward, but about a third of them are in the nursery. Still, the choir seats are full for the Primary program. The last time I worked in Primary was when I was in high school (a long, long time ago), and it’s not a church job I covet, but I do enjoy watching the kids do their little talks and sing their songs.

  20. Primary is where you go from laughing out loud to some hysterical comment a child made, to sobbing as they feel the room with the spirit as they sing in just a matter of minutes. It’s great! Rebecca, does it drive you crazy–like it does me–that the lyrics of “I Lived In Heaven” start with ‘I lived in heaven a long time ago it is true’. Some of these kids were in heaven just 3 scant years ago! I always have them sing a “short time ago” because that is more true.

    #1 Tim–My first experience teaching primary was exactly as you described. Opening prayer by a 6 year old “Please help my mommy and daddy not to fight so much”. Children simply are without guile and it can be heartbreaking. I like to think of those 2 hours I’m with them in primary as a safe haven from the heavy loads so many of them bear.

    I have had almost every calling there is to have in primary and although primary pianist is great, Activity Day Leader beats them all! Twice a month calling for 1.5 hours each time. Girls without major attitude or boyfriends. Love everything you do and think you are a rock star. It doesn’t get much better than that. Oh, and you don’t have to get a substitute when you go somewhere on Sunday. Just sayin’…

    I have to admit, Primary Presentation Sunday is my favorite of the year!

  21. Rebecca, I enjoy your writing. It’s light but there’s still substance. Everybody loves self-defacement, it makes us feel better, so thanks. Not enough people do that, especially in church.

  22. You lost me at the primary pianist part…ugh. I’m an okay pianist but I struggle to accompany anyone. Once people start singing my fingers are completely derailed. My struggle with the calling may also be related to the last music directors insistence that reverence = SLOW AND QUIET. once there was a snowman? gone. head shoulders knees and toes…horrid and forgotten. Perhaps my fingers may have been able to keep up had they been awake. She even managed to make scripture power a monastical chant like dirge. sigh.

    I love primary presentations. I find primary isolating but endlessly entertaining.

    I’m glad you took the calling as well.

  23. Very nice. Thank you.

    I too love the Primary program, though sadly it’s been quite a few years since I got to teach. Our ward has 116 Primary kids, and while they all get a speaking part, they all have to be short so they can fit in. I miss our previous ward, where the numbers were fewer and the kids got to write their own parts and have them be more of a paragraph each instead of just a sentence. (However, I’m pretty sure at least some of the parts in our program this year were written by the kids — or maybe just ad libbed. Those are always the most fun!)

  24. Alf O'Mega says:

    One other angle on primary pianist: it’s one of the handful of callings that an atheist who still wants to remain active can hold without too much conflict (in either direction). Up until my very recent move, I have officiated at the primary piano for over a dozen years. And if I can say this without sounding too creepy, it’s a nice way to hang out with the sisters in the ward, whose company I much prefer to that of the brethren. They’re generally smarter, nicer, and more inclined to bring treats.

    Of course I’m hoping it’s not too long before things get rearranged in my current ward. Strangely, the bishop hasn’t reacted to my arrival by immediately evicting people from their callings just to suit my preferences. I’m beginning to suspect that pleasing the atheist constituency isn’t his top priority.

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