My Primary story

They released me from Primary, and people keep congratulating me on “graduating” and “coming back to adult church.” I don’t feel like being congratulated. I’m sad.

People say I was in there a long time, and I say, “Not so long. Only three years.” And they’re like, “Only three years?” Well, considering I was content to stay there the rest of my life, yes, three years doesn’t seem like a very long time at all.

It’s funny—hilarious, really, if you know me—that I should be speaking this way. Three years ago they called me to replace the gentleman who had team-taught Primary with Brother J (as part of the church’s No Man Left Behind program) and was now in a different ward, thanks to a boundary reorganization. The bishopric member who extended the call said something like, “What do you think about that idea?” and I said I didn’t like the idea at all. It was the first time I had ever told anyone I’d have to think about a calling and get back to them.

Actually, my initial reaction was “I don’t have to think about this: No way!” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be in Primary. I’d served in Primary before. I liked Primary. I just didn’t like teaching. I’d served as a teacher before; it was disastrous. I’ll spare you the details; suffice it to say that children can be cruel. But it wasn’t so much that I was unwilling to be a Primary teacher. I may have been reluctantly willing, but when half the callings in a ward are Primary callings, willingness is an either/or thing; it isn’t judged by degrees. I was willing to be a Primary teacher, if I had to be, because someone had to be (well, technically, a few dozen people needed to be) and even if I were only serving as a warm body/half-assed babysitter, I was willing to do that much. I wasn’t willing to serve alongside my husband, who was (is) a fantastic teacher. (He pooh-poohs this characterization, but he is either really good at faking modesty or he doesn’t appreciate his own talent. Either way, I’m right and he’s wrong.) People, including children, love Brother J. People, especially children, are not nearly as fond of me. I could handle being disliked by children (I was used to it); I couldn’t handle being disliked in the same room as the man the children loved.

I explained this to the bishopric guy, and he was quite taken aback by my response (as was my husband, when I related the story to him). He asked if I’d be willing to teach a class on my own (this was where my reluctant willingness kicked in) and then he said he’d talk things over with the Primary President, who, he said, had felt “strongly impressed” that I should be in Primary. Of course she was, I thought. Half her staff has been annexed by another ward. I’d be “strongly impressed” under those conditions too. Well. I fretted and (metaphorically) wrung my hands, but in the end I was persuaded that teaching with my husband wouldn’t be the worst possible thing that could happen to me. In other words, guilt won out and so I found myself team-teaching CTR 6 with Brother J.

When January rolled around, they promoted us to Valiant 10. I was surprised by how much more I enjoyed teaching senior Primary than junior Primary, since heretofore I had considered senior Primary the middle school of church. Children that age shouldn’t be allowed to organize in groups. They’re too old to manipulate and too young to punch in the face. Anyway, as I said, I was surprised. Teaching Valiant 10 was great fun. In December, when the Primary president was assessing her teachers’ sanity levels, I told her Brother J and I would be delighted to stay in senior Primary.

Unfortunately, another fate lay in store for Brother J, who at that point had been serving in Primary for five years. (Now that’s a long time.) He was called to Sunday School, and suddenly I was in Primary on my own. I didn’t think it would be so bad. I’d been teaching Primary for a year and a half, and while I wouldn’t have called myself a good teacher by any stretch of the imagination, I was by now a reasonably confident teacher, i.e. confident that I could manage to keep half a dozen pre-teens off the streets for an hour each week. In retrospect I may have been a little cocky. It’s hard when the charismatic half of a partnership leaves and all that’s left is the warm body. Kids tend to notice these things. True, it was a different group of kids—eight-year-olds this time—but most of them had had Brother J as a teacher before and were disappointed that he wasn’t going to be part of the package deal anymore.

So we had kind of a rough beginning. Actually, it never really stopped being rough. I just got used to the roughness. I learned to channel that energy in the same way one herds cats. I learned that rather than sitting in a chair and getting on the kids’ level, I should conduct class on my feet—not to assert my authority over the children (that wouldn’t have fooled anyone) but to keep them unsettled, give them the impression that at any moment I might actually do something. The important thing was to keep moving; otherwise, I’d be the only one sitting still. Teaching Primary was much less like confronting a wild bear than navigating a busy freeway. I had to keep up with the flow of traffic.

Despite the fact that they were incredibly unruly and I lived in fear that the Primary presidency member roaming the halls was going to look in the window and discover that the inmates were running the asylum (“Sister R is out there! Be quiet or she’ll fire me!”), I…oh, how to put this without betraying my cool exterior? I grew inordinately fond of my Valiant 8s, just as I’d gotten overly attached to my Valiant 10s the year before. I can’t tell you how many times in my church-going career I had heard people bear testimony of how much they loved serving in Primary and how much they loved all the kids. I always thought that was just something people said because they were overcome with the spirit or something. They couldn’t possibly mean it literally. But no, I decided that I was wrong because here I was loving Primary and preparing to make it my lifelong home, and I did love all of my kids. If I were a different sort of woman, I would have gathered them all in a big group hug every week, even after they’d spent the last hour building a fort out of the table and chairs and launching various projectiles at each other, because they were my kids, the little turkeys, and I loved them even if they didn’t love me back.

So when the Bishop told me they were releasing me, I was actually very disappointed that I wouldn’t even get to finish out the year with my class. In fact, I was getting released immediately so I could serve as the Relief Society pianist. (Talk about anti-climax. Not to mention that I was now going to have to attend Sunday School, which was a mega-bummer.) The bishop made a point of saying that he knew this new calling was our Heavenly Father’s will. He seemed so sincere, I thought, “Good grief, God really doesn’t want me teaching Primary. I must be killing their little testimonies!” But later I rationalized that the Relief Society probably really needed a piano player. I asked the Primary president if she needed me to teach one more week, but she said no, it was all taken care of, but I should feel free to poke my head in on Sunday and say goodbye to the kids if I wanted to.

I mean, if I’d known my last week was going to be my last week, I would have done things a little differently. Brought some Starbursts, at the very least. (Kids like Starbursts.)

So that Sunday during sacrament meeting, they officially released me. There was no audible outpouring of sorrow to match my own melancholy. At the beginning of second hour, I walked down to the Primary room and handed in my manual. Across the hall was my old (!) classroom, and I debated within myself—do I poke my head in and say goodbye? What do I say? “So long, suckers, you won’t have Sister J to kick around anymore”? I’ve never been good in social situations. I didn’t want to interrupt if the teacher had already started class, so I discreetly peeked in the window to see if everyone was sitting down (on chairs) and behaving themselves, and from what I could see, they were. (Someday you real Primary teachers should tell me how you do it.) One of the kids turned her head toward the door just then and saw me, and I saw that she saw me, so I gave a little wave. Her face lit up and she waved back.

That was the moment when I should have poked my head in and said goodbye, but I didn’t. I just turned and walked the other way to Sunday School because, gentle readers, it was the first time in my life I had ever seen a child’s face light up when they saw me, and I didn’t think it could get any better than that.

Also, I was afraid I would cry like a ninny. Kids don’t understand when adults do crap like that.

I won’t lie to you, brothers and sisters. My adjustment to “adult church” has been difficult. I thought I’d found Sunday School dull before. Now it is positively crazy-making. It’s much too quiet. Everyone just sits there and listens and/or makes appropriate comments pertaining to the subject of the lesson. No one builds chair forts or tries to climb out the window or sees who can jump up and touch the light fixture or talks about the birthday party they went to the day before. No one throws shoes or compares scars. The teacher never has to raise his voice—how am I supposed to know when he’s saying something important? I’m used to a lot more action during this hour. Now I don’t even know what to do with myself.

The worst part is I might actually have to start reading the Doctrine and Covenants.


  1. RJ, a short while ago I was released from a calling that gave me licence to miss Sunday school whenever I wanted. The transition back into regular meetings was quite difficult. It all seemed so pointless and, to a point, it still does.

  2. My condolences. I’ve also just left primary after a four-year stint (pianist, chorister). I was excited for the calling, loved primary, and am actually pretty okay with being released. It’s kind of an exhausting job, and I was getting pretty tired.

    To ease my transition back to grown-up church, I’ve decided that Sunday School is partially optional. By which I mean I go on the weeks my friend is teaching, and on the weeks the other teacher is in charge I find something else to do. Not sure how long I can get away with this, but like I said, easing my transition.

  3. Please consider sharing this with the children you taught, in some form. I have a box of cherished memories that includes a mimeograph of a testimony from one of my favorite teachers. A few things you say, about feeling inadequate, coming to love the children despite unruly behavior, and the hope that the children know you love them when you feel tongue-tied, are all elements of the letter that sits nestled with other unexpected treasures from being a child in Primary, and the shock that comes from knowing I might have done something impactful to the lives of others when I wasn’t looking.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    At first I thought you said “Brought some Starbucks, at the very least. (Kids like Starbucks.)”

    If my wife ever gets called out of Primary back into RS, she might leave the church. Seriously.

  5. I return to grown up church this coming Sunday. I have very mixed feelings.

  6. Mossbloom says:

    When I was called to be 2nd counselor in the Primary, I was terrified because I had never been in it at all before and didn’t really enjoy other people’s children. I was on high awareness the first Sunday that we were called as the previous Presidency did their thing for the last time and I remember being struck by how the Presidency was in tears, but the kids didn’t really seem to care. I was so glad I paid attention to that. When we were released after 18 months, it was pretty traumatic. I had learned to absolutely love the calling and the kids and we were released due to some really upsetting circumstances in the personal life of the President. So on that last Sunday I was prepared for the complete indifference of the kids while my own heart was breaking. They barely reacted at all. I didn’t realize until I was in it just how intense Primary is. I got called back in as Valiant 11 teacher so I don’t have to go to Sunday school, but I can feel the same intensity as before, just on a smaller scale. It is really interesting and has made me even more in awe of school teachers.

  7. Casey and I team taught CTR 6 for a mere 4 months (we moved) and I want so badly to go back. The kids were hilarious and sweet and Sunday School is the worst, especially after being in Primary.

    Our last week, they made me (Casey was sick) stand in front of the whole junior primary all by myself and the kids all sang to me and I bawled like a baby. My sincere condolences.

  8. melodynew says:

    What a wonderful post. Beautifully written. Fabulous story-telling. Sort of scriptural, really. Thank you for sharing it here. Also, have you heard the song, “Primary Teachers Cried As They Walked and Walked and Walked – down the hall to Gospel Doctrine class”? It’s a good one. God bless.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    RJ, I would love for you to teach my kids. Everything about this post is wonderful, you are a good person.

  10. Kanderson says:

    Gospel doctrine is difficult to return to, but RS is near impossible. If I have to sit in one place while the teacher lectures/reads for 40 straight minutes one more time – ugh I want to stab myself with a spoon. Doesn’t help I can hear primary having fun across the hallway :( Primary is comedy gold!

  11. “Teaching Primary was much less like confronting a wild bear than navigating a busy freeway. I had to keep up with the flow of traffic.”

    7 and 8 year-olds. Oh yes. Good times.

  12. Yeah, linking to all the posts about Rebecca’s Primary experience needs to happen. It’s like a book that you need to savor from beginning of the calling to now. A really, really, really good book that should be on the shelves of DB. So here are the posts in order: Can This Primary Lesson Be Saved?
    Reflections on the Primary Program
    We bow our heads and close our eyes (and hope no one calls on us)
    Teaching the Doctrine and Covenants to eight-year-olds
    And then this one. Take these. Print these. And read them clandestine-like while you are supposed to be teaching Primary. Or just read them out loud to the kids. Either way.

  13. I appreciate the deep love for the Primary shared here and the let down some feel going back to regular adult classes. As a Gospel Doctrine teacher I strive to engage our class in discussion and look for creative ways of exploring the material–like in Primary.

    When I was a bishop’s counselor we were counseled to seek the best talent for working in the Primary because the kids are our future. When they pass around sign up sheets for substitutes I’m honored to add my support. One of the hilights of the last year was when I was invited to put on a sharing time about Easter.

  14. Danielle says:

    I absolutely love this – especially the last couple paragraphs – and I completely understand. I am about to get released from Primary and I am so sad.

  15. I well know the anticlimax that is a calling to be Relief Society pianist. I was released from my favorite calling to do this. It was very hard not to interpret it as disapproval at how I’d done my previous calling.

    In the Church there is this need to keep callings and releases a surprise. Why? To add an aura of inspiration to everything? As if inspiration only comes in lightning bolts? To preempt complaining? (This is the tactic my school district uses – we don’t find out our children’s teachers until about 5 minutes before school starts.) I think the unintended consequence is that people often feel unceremoniously dumped. Which is sad. It doesn’t have to be that way.

  16. For what it is worth (or as an informed commenter, should I say FWIW?), from an old, white-haired cynic: Excellent post. A real hoot! thanks

  17. Chad Too says:

    Loved your story, except for the Starbursts. Ugh. At least HiChews taste like the fruits they represent! :)

  18. Sharee Hughes says:

    I have never had children and have never taught Primary (except when I was in my teens and that was a long time ago in a very, very small branch, so I only had two or three kids in my class). I have no desire to ever teach Primary. I enjoy Sunday School most of the time, as we have a couple of excellent teachers in our ward (and it is easy to tell the ones that are strictly following the manual–they are not nearly as interesting). We also have some very good, creative Relief Society teachers that don’t just stand there and read. I guess I’m just lucky to be in the ward I’m in. I actually am able to learn something in “grown-up” church. I doubt they would ever call me to teach Primary, but I think that is a calling I would decline.

  19. Emily U,

    “In the Church there is this need to keep callings and releases a surprise. Why?”

    Well, having been in a bishopric once, I’d say the practice comes as both a practical matter and a confidentiality matter. It was in a ward that had far more than its share of gossips and backbiters, second-guessers and ark-steadiers. (Or maybe it DIDN’T have more than its share, and I only knew about because of that calling. I do suspect that it’s the former more than the latter.)

    The times when a calling and release were extended were very sensitive times. As a practical matter, it works out far better for everyone if the person being released doesn’t hear about it until the new person for the calling has already accepted — and that nobody else knows about the change until deed is being done in front of the entire congregation.

    People being released and called can deal with so many emotions at the time. So much potential for second-guessing and hurt feelings, and the more people involved, the messier it could get. It’s better for them and for everyone if the answers about the who and why are narrowed down to only those who actually need to know.

  20. Caffeine Drinker says:

    “a calling that gave me licence to miss Sunday school whenever I wanted”

    What calling was that?

  21. RJ, it’s good every time you show up here. And no, I don’t want to teach primary in spite of this.

  22. MDearest says:

    Nailed it, again.

    I used to teach Primary, and then the special needs kid who didn’t intimidate me went to YM, and I got poached by the RS.
    I can’t wait to read your posts about Relief Society.

  23. Phyllis Flores says:

    I was released from Primary after a year and I thought they were going to have to drag me kicking and screaming to my new RS calling! I still bring stickers and coloring books; old habits die hard. There is still on child that will ask me to walk him into Primary which I can’t say no to. I was asked to sub once and was thrilled to do it. I make it a point to swing by Primary every Sunday just on the off chance they might need me!! I am getting used to my new calling, but I don’t know if it will ever meet my Primary expectations. :-)

  24. I just got released as Primary pianist to serve as Relief Society pianist. I suspect someone found my stash and turned me in.

    It’s hard to read discreetly in Relief Society, but I’m open to suggestions.

  25. onecrazymama says:

    ZD Eve, I’ve figured it out. I read BCC and other blogs on my smart phone. It looks like I’m looking up scriptures, reading the lesson, and typing in study notes… Almost everyone in my ward has an iPad, a smart phone, or some other electronic version of the scriptures so I look like I’m paying attention. And I AM reading gospel-related content…

    I really relate to this post. I was called years ago to be the teacher of a special needs child in Primary. She didn’t want to be there, she didn’t want her parents to leave her, she was just three years old and deaf and didn’t know what was going on. In the beginning she hated me so much. Over the course of the next year I worked really hard to learn enough sign language to communicate with her and get her to trust me. It was hard. She resisted every effort I made for a long time. I grew to love that child like one of my own. And nothing was better than having her face light up when she ran down the hall to hug me every week. I get choked up just thinking about it. Every time they tried to move her to a new teacher, it lasted about two weeks and then she was back with me. I was her Primary teacher for almost four years, until she moved from our ward. That calling was the hardest and most fulfilling calling that I have ever had. I haven’t seen her for three years now and I still miss her like crazy.

    And I really don’t like going to grown up church. Primary is just my speed.

  26. I have found that Primary lesson plans and teaching techniques can work in SS and RS, as long as you are willing to take the spirit of the lesson and then “use what works.” I have split the class into groups and giving them a VT problem to solve, and then present their solution in either song, one of several poetry types (rhyming couplets, haiku, limericks, etc) or in silent movie form with written subtitles. I have played hangman with words that described Jesus; all came from the bible and/or were from the lips of a prophet, as an introduction to talking about involvement in our communities. I have even done basic science expiraments in both SS and RS. (One can’t be done anymore with the rules about no flames, but I have never had a complaint about the whole class heading outside to watch what happens when things are put together that we are told not to, or how the Atonement can mitigate those mistakes, even if the repentance process is still needed to “clean up our mess.” (All Primary children of course love leaving their classroom even if it is just to have a change of scenery. Adults might not be as willing to admit it, but I have found that lessons that might be divisive automatically lose some of their harshness when given in a different space.)

    So, I wrote a little about this earlier and have the bare bones of a lesson that I created for a class that had 9 children, and only one was from an “ideal family,” as defined by the Proclamation, and even his family would be hit by his father’s infidelity, before that year was through. I think there are a lot of things worth bringing from Primary, and I have taught this lesson to Primary, Mutual and adult classes. If you are grieving for your Primary calling, maybe try this out.

    “So you have to teach the lesson on the Proclamation on the Family: You want to be sensitive to everyone who doesn’t have two parents, who are sealed in the temple, all siblings born under the covenant, all served or serving missions and finding perfect marriage matches at BYU. But, how do you do that when all the examples in the lesson manual are of those “perfect, ideal situations?”

    I know it’s pretty radical in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but why not use *Jesus* as your example?

    Dedicated to Stumped, MDearest, Ray, marginalizedmormon and Karen H., for the BCC discussion that prompted this post as a formalized lesson plan. I hope that whether you are teaching this lesson in church or family home evening, that you will take the chance and try it out. You may be as surprised as I am every time I use this general lesson plan, how much I learn from my “students.”
    (For those of you who have read my comment on the BCC thread, I have added additional details to the story of the family in Brasil, after rereading the two letters from the missionary who originally shared it with me. I have asked him, and he prefers to remain anonymous at this time.)”

  27. Onecrazymama, I have had two children I was assigned to, one a boy with autism and the other a girl with Down syndrome. I spent 2 years with the boy, and was official the companion of the girl for 18 months, but even after I was called into the Primary Presidency, she stayed with me. She helped with sharing time, covering the nursery, helping get kids to the bathroom, whatever I was doing. I love it when I run into her. She is in her 20s and is currently serving as the second, 2nd councilor, in the Primary presidency, in her ward. She has held that calling through 3 presidency changes. Her mom and I keep in touch, and her mom says that often after a “rough Sunday” in Primary, she will say that she is glad Sister P. (no longer my last name, but who cares?) taught her how to keep going even if someone throws a tantrum. I love that girl, even though she threw most of the tantrums during our time serving together.

  28. My mother-in-law served in the Primary for close to thirty years, if I remember correctly, and she has said she wishes she had never left. She loved working with the children.

    My favorite calling ever was teaching Nursery with my wife. Heaven on earth.

    Beautiful post, Rebecca.

  29. Nursery is the best calling there is. You get to have a snack, play with playdough, what’s not to love? People think I’m joking when I say that, but I’m not.

    Primary is a great place for us introverts.

  30. RJ, it seems messed up that they have taken you from a calling with little to no adult contact, and put you in a calling where the main purpose seems to be preventing other people from having adult contact. RS sisters seem happy to sit and converse with each other, but then they assign someone to play the piano in an effort to keep everyone from talking.

    Our ward no longer hands out potted flowers on Mother’s Day. Instead, we let the sisters sit and talk for the hour, and they seem to like that way better than having something else to kill.

    Then again, you could view this calling as an opportunity to show people that the hymns can be joyous and inspiring, but only when played up to tempo.

  31. My husband is now in his 21st year teaching the 7-8 year olds. Now there’s a story.

  32. Carolyn, I would be happy to have him guest post on my blog, if he or you, would like to share the story.

  33. I always want to teach for at least four years so that one can sample all the different curricula…it would never be boring until then. Okay, the 12-13 class was on a 2-year cycle when I did it–not sure if that is still.

    The only downside is that it is hard to take time off. We are planning our vacation for during General Conference and stake conference.

    But I only teach the older ages, and I would not do well with younger kids. It really is a huge age range that is encompassed in “Primary.”

  34. Meldrum the Less says:

    I think the primary has the most advanced lessons and discussions in the ward house. For example, consider the song : “Heavenly Father, Are You Really There?” The children have not been inhibited from asking all the hard questions and children have built-in acutely sensitive BS detectors and often insist on answers that make sense to them. Seldom can the same be said for the various “adult” classes.

    I was only allowed to teach “the monster boys” in primary for about a year before being demoted to Elders Q. President. But I did the Wed. night home making nursery every month for 11 years minus a rare miss for vacation while my children were in grade school before they cancelled it. I would consider a call to teach primary on level with a call to the apostleship. But young parents are almost always given this high honor, and rightfully so.

  35. questioning says:

    oh, grow up!

  36. Meldrum,

    You would have loved one of the High Councilors when I was a teenager. His deal with the Stake President was that he would only keep being on the high council, (the deal started around year 15) if he could also serve in his ward’s nursery. If there was a conflict between a speaking assignment and nursery, nursery always won out.

    He was a highly respected professor of physics, who took on more undergraduate classes, after he got tired of doing research. His wife was one of my YW advisors, and I asked him one time about how he had gotten the nursery deal with the SP. he told me he got it the same way he got to stop having to do research. He knew what he wanted, he knew that all of his research awards were highly prized by his university, and he didn’t care about the awards. He was tired if researching, so he told them he could teach more undergraduate classes for them, and attract students by telling them that they were guaranteed to have him for at least one class, or he could leave the university and teach at a community college. He was perfectly willing to teach at a community college, just like he was willing to never have another stake calling.

    His wife had heard the last part of the conversation, and teasingly asked him how he got so smart. “Having a wife who researches the psychology of professional closers, and insists that I do the first proof read of her research papers, had had its benefits over the years. She likes to publish, I don’t, but I like knowing what she knows.” As a teenager I learned several important life lessons from that conversation.

  37. Great post, Rebecca! And EmJen, I love your idea of the book of Rebecca J posts on the primary. It can be the new standard work. :)

  38. Lisette Krogstrup Bendtsen says:

    Thank you so much. I’v just been released after serving 4 years in primary. 1 year as 1 counsler and 3 as president. My first respond ; years ago was: are you sure, I don’t even like children, have you prayed and pondered about this? I need to know for my self, so I couldn’t say yes. So all thouse beautiful children, that I came to love, had funn with, had sharing time and do song practice with. But at the same time I’ exhausted after 4 years in the presidentsy. Couldn’t they at least have given me a class in primary…
    Now I have to attende RS and SS. The worse thing in the world, is RS. They don’t even sing nice songs. There is no way in this world I will set foot in RS. So my plan is to attend church later ( RS is first) and ask my leader at work to give me more Sunday shift. Or just attend sacrament with my family.

  39. PRIMARY:
    LOVE (Christ-like kind)

  40. I really enjoy reading your posts and gaining new perspective on the Mormon lifestyle. I am especially enthusiastic that you promote your blog with an accompanying Twitter account, which makes it more accessible and appealing to a greater audience. I recently used your blog as inspiration for a post of my own. I saw in the news where Mormon missions are beginning to also utilize social media in lieu of the door-to-door approach, and I thought that was really interesting.


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