Anarchy: a love story

Me (tacking up a picture of Lorenzo Snow on the board): Do any of you know who this is?

Primary child: You, when you were younger?

Me: Tough, but fair.

Last September, after a four-year hiatus, I made a triumphant return to teaching Primary. Well, it was triumphant for about five minutes, until I actually tried to teach a lesson. Then everything was exactly the same as it had been four years ago: a circus in search of a ringmaster. A circus that is such a fun-filled romp for everyone that random adults wandering the halls tend to poke their noses in and say, “Everything okay in here?”

“It’s okay,” I reassure them. “We’re cool here.”

We’re not cool, of course. We’re completely off the rails, and in the time I took to answer that question, one of the kids just climbed out the window. But NBD.

I’ve never been especially good with children. Growing up, I never planned to have children of my own. As a teenager, I was a terrible babysitter. By the time I got married, I’d come around to the idea of parenthood, but mostly in an abstract sense. I even got pregnant by accident (the first time).

Even after I had one of my own, and was (sort of) getting used to it, I didn’t find myself fond of other people’s children. I found myself mostly not minding them (unless, of course, they were being annoying). My first calling after getting married was in Young Women, which was a disaster. A few months later, they called me to teach CTR 6, which was also a disaster, but this one ended in tears (all mine). The Primary president, a compassionate and wise woman, who also was probably afraid I wouldn’t come back to church, decided to put me back behind a piano, which was where I stayed for the remainder of my time in that ward. When she told me what she’d decided, I was relieved but also felt very much like a failure. Then again, I was mostly just relieved. She said that I would probably find it easier to deal with children as my own children got older. At the time I didn’t believe her, but it didn’t matter. I was just really grateful not to have to go back into that classroom again.

But as it happened, she was right. As my children got older, I did find it easier to deal with other children. Mostly because I didn’t feel the crippling responsibility for them that I did for my own. But also because I’d had some experience with varying stages of development. Not in the sense that I knew what to do in any particular situation—more in the sense of “oh yes, I’ve seen this before, and it didn’t kill me.” I got a second shot at being a Primary teacher, and this time I liked it. I wasn’t any smarter. I just no longer had fear (which, in case you were wondering, children can smell a mile away). When you’re not afraid of what children can do to you, you enjoy them a lot more. At least I do.

Which is why, despite the fact that I’ve never been good with children, I was delighted to be called back into Primary. Because ever since I’d left Primary, church had become boring as heck (i.e. the boring version of hell).

This time I was teaching Valiant 9, which is a pretty great age. It became clear to me early on (say, five minutes in) that I was (once again) in way over my head. When I tell people that I like the “energy” of Primary, I mean that I’m comfortable with a fair amount of chaos. I’m used to it. I’m at a stage of life where I don’t take children’s behavior personally. (Unless it’s my own kids, in which case I can’t help feeling like I deserve a little more respect.) But there’s chaos, and then there’s straight-up anarchy, and anarchy is not a sustainable mode of living. People can get hurt. (Most importantly, I could get hurt.)

Classroom management has never been my forte because, as I keep mentioning, children have never been my forte. In all my years of study and experience and advice-getting (solicited and otherwise), I have learned very little about children, except this: they do whatever the crap they want. So whatever it is you want them to do, you have to convince them it’s their idea.

Many moons ago, when my older sister was serving in Young Women, she shared her frustrations regarding some of the girls in her class. My father, who was a scoutmaster for many years, told her his secret for dealing with difficult youth: “You have to act as though you genuinely like all of them.”

“But that feels so fake,” my sister said. “I hated when adults would be like ‘oh, I love you all so much’—”

“Oh, no,” my father protested. “You don’t say it. I don’t believe in saying it. You don’t even have to really like them. You just have to act like you like them.”

I had a head start on this project: I actually already did like all of my Primary kids, even the jive turkeys. It was just hard to find opportunities to act as though I liked them, since I spent most of my time saying things like “Settle down, dude,” “My purse is off limits, dude,” “NO TOUCHING! NO TOUCHING!” and “Hey! Eighth commandment, dude! EIGHTH! COMMANDMENT!”

Fortunately for me, early on in my tenure, one of my clever but lively dudes, whom I’ll call “R.,” gave a talk in sharing time. It was a good talk. (I mean, there aren’t really any bad talks in Primary. For one thing, they’re never long enough to be bad, but this one happened to be especially good.) So the next morning I wrote R. a letter about how great his talk was and I was glad he was in our class. The next Sunday we were practicing for the Primary program in the chapel, and R. was sitting next to me. Instead of kicking the chair in front of him while kids-not-him were rehearsing their parts, he asked me, “Would you like me to show you how to make a flappy bird?”

“Yes, I would,” I said.

“Do you have paper?”

I did. So R., who had recently lived a couple years in Japan with his family, showed me how to make an origami crane with movable wings. He participated (more appropriately) in class. (It helped that class had been shortened due to program practice.) He also stayed late after sharing time to make sure that I knew how to make my own flappy bird.

I didn’t have trouble with R. after that. Which is not to say he became an angel, for he did not. (That would have weird, anyway.) There was still raucousness and occasional bending of the eighth commandment, but he and I had an understanding, and that made all the difference.

Things were not as straightforward with another pupil, “M.,” who had earned a reputation as a trouble-maker. (I’m paraphrasing said reputation.) He wasn’t the first kid ever to climb out of my classroom window, but he was the most challenging. He was very smart, with a mischievous sense of humor and just a touch of evil. One on one, he was charming. In groups, he was a riot. An actual riot. I’d seen his kind before. Actually, I’d married one of his kind. Early in our marriage, my husband asked me, “Have you ever wondered what would happen if you just walked up to your grandma one day and punched her?”

“No,” I said. Because a) who even thinks of that, and b) I know what would happen if I punched my grandma: I’d be a monster.

“But just think about it—it would be so unexpected. How would people react?”

For the record, my husband has never punched a grandmother, his own or otherwise. But he taught me there are two types of people in this world: those who have never thought of punching Grandma, and those who metaphorically punch Grandma every day of their lives. M. was one of the latter. He was always conducting the “what would happen if” experiment. People who had taught him before said, “If he gets out of hand, talk to his dad. That usually straightens him out for a couple weeks.”

But I didn’t want to solve my M. problem by talking to his dad because a) I’m not a snitch and b) having raised a very difficult and ill-behaved-at-church(-and-school) child, I’d decided that there’s only so much a parent can do to help in these situations, i.e. non-home situations. Every teacher needs to find their own way. I was determined to find my own way.

Determined, however, did not mean successful. The day he climbed out the window, one of the Primary presidency took him for the rest of the class period, and our little room was peaceful. But I didn’t want someone else to take M. off my hands. I wanted us to reach an understanding. I racked my brains for ideas. I lost sleep over it. (I know, right? That was crazy!) Every week I went to class with a new strategy for engaging him, and every week he just metaphorically punched me in the face, and the class ran wild.

One week was especially bad. If I’d been a younger woman, I probably would have started screaming at everyone. But I’m an old woman, tired of screaming. I was sorely tempted to just walk out of the room and not come back. But somehow I managed to persuade M. to take a short break with me in the hall.

“Look, man,” I said. “I get that you’re a kid with a lot of energy and a lot to say—and I want to hear what you have to say—”

“No, you don’t,” he said, looking at the floor and shaking his head vigorously. “Believe me, you don’t.”

Crap. That was a strategic error. I may as well have told him I loved him! “Okay,” I said, “Sure. Not all the time. It’s too much. I don’t expect a lot here. All I want is to teach a five-minute lesson, play a game, and hand out some gum. And I’ve got a whole classroom of kids in there, and it isn’t fair that I spend all my time hassling you.”

“Okay,” he said, still not looking at me. So we went back inside, and he was somewhat subdued, but we didn’t have much of a lesson, nor was there time left to play a game. I did hand out gum. (Pro-tip: kids love gum. They also love Tic-Tacs. Kids are cheap dates.) But I left dispirited.

It looked like I really was going to have to talk to his father. Or something. I considered siccing my mother-in-law on him. (My MIL is his former Wolf den leader, and M. appears to be genuinely afraid of her.) But I didn’t. I commiserated with a former Primary president, and with the current Primary president. The same Primary counselor who’d taken him after the window incident told me that she’d said to him, “I don’t want to hear that you’ve been giving Sister J a hard time, because Sister J is my friend and I like her,” and M. had said, “Well, I like her, too. That’s why I give her a hard time!”

Punching grandma is the new pulling pigtails, apparently.

After a two-week respite from teaching Primary, due to Stake Conference and Thanksgiving weekend, I prepared to go back, and I realized M.’s birthday was in two days. I’d intended to send him a birthday card, but I’d forgotten to put it in the mail that morning (or, ah, buy one). I wanted to be sure it got to him on time, so I rushed out to buy a card, wrote something I don’t remember in it, and drove to a mailbox store with a late USPS pick-up. Two days later, I was at the middle school for my 12-year-old daughter’s band concert. When I walked into the gym, I saw M., whose older brother was also in the band.

When he saw me, he said, “Hey!” and ran up and gave me a big hug.

“Hey, buddy!” I said. “Happy birthday!”

“Thanks! Bye!” And off he went for a drink of water, or whatever. (Helluva way to spend your birthday, at a middle school band concert. But at least this one was short.)

If this were an Ensign story, this is where M. would become a new man and never give me crap again. But Sister J keeps it real. M. continued to be exactly as he’d always been, and perhaps as he’ll always be (at least metaphorically). But it was different for me, because I now believed that M. liked me. One week when the kids were getting especially rowdy (not compared to other weeks, but compared to other points during that particular class time), I said, “Hey, y’all have to be quieter, or they’re gonna fire me and I won’t be able to teach Primary anymore.”

“Who’s going to fire you?” M. said fiercely. “I’ll kill them until they’re dead!” (I didn’t name names.)

As the end of the year approached, more than one person told me, “I bet you’re counting the weeks until January” (when they make new class assignments). But actually, I was a little depressed. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t have more time to persuade all of the kids that I liked them. (I had especial regrets about the quieter ones, since M. had taken so much of my attention.) For Christmas I gave each of them their favorite candy and a card that did not say I loved them, but I did use hearts and smiley faces because I am not a machine, all right? That week, M.’s family showed up on our front porch bearing Christmas goodies, and when I answered the door, M. said, “Hey, that’s MY Primary teacher! No one else’s!”

“That’s right,” I said. “I wouldn’t teach these other jokers.” (I might have said “losers,” but his parents were right there, and anyway, I like them too.)

And that was the last interaction I had with M. as his Primary teacher. The next time I saw him, he was in Valiant 10, and he looked so much older, it broke my heart a little bit.


  1. Jennifer in GA says:

    As someone who genuinely enjoys teaching little kids (think 3-6) this made me cry. In a good way. You’re a good egg, and the best kind of teacher.

  2. Third year teaching Valiant 8’s, here. You are my hero.

  3. I love this post, Rebecca. Love it so much.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    RJ rules.

  5. Eric Facer says:

    When I was about seven or eight years old, I did something that made my Primary teacher cry. I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t because she was overwhelmed by an insightful spiritual comment I made during class.

    Anyway, after Primary was over and while I was hitching a ride home with a friend, my teacher called my mother. (At the risk of giving away my age, this was before the three-hour bloc when Primary was held on Monday afternoons.) Though what my mother said to me and threatened to do to me didn’t suddenly remedy my incorrigible behavior, I never gave that teacher a hard time again.

    I share this only because your experience brought back this memory and reminded me how difficult it is to teach Primary-age children. I admire the way you handled your situation, and while I played a small role in raising three children of my own, I don’t have a clue as to how it should be done.

    Finally, last summer I had to have back surgery which required me to ask my bishop to release me from my calling as Primary pianist, a job I have had off and on in church for over 20 years. Now that I have recovered well enough to play again, I’d give anything to get that calling back. I miss it terribly.

  6. This almost makes me want to teach a Primary class. Almost.

  7. I’ve had a few forays into teaching Primary and Elders, and I don’t believe it has ever been very successful But that can possibly be chalked up to not being very good at reading other people, which is an additional difficulty when teaching.

    Your husband may appreciate the Spike Jones song “Never Hit Your Grandma with a Shovel”.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I wish I’d known crawling out the window was a thing. I was 28, a new convert of about 5 minutes and they called me as a CTR 6 teacher. Talk about clueless. The day B crawled out the window and hid in the bushes I went home in tears. My entries from my journal during that period show I was convinced that boy just sat around trying to think of ways to bedevil me. I talked to him one day about it, by this time he was an RM and married. He of course had no memory of the incident, but we had a good laugh. I’m going to print your OP out and use it in some teaching council discussion. You have some great ideas, especially “act like you like them.” I’ll have to try that with my GD class. Some of them I could strangle.

  9. This is amazing. And it gives me hope that the next time I’m called to Primary that maybe it won’t be a complete unmitigated disaster? (Both the times I have been called to be a Primary teacher, everyone saw the error of their ways and released me very shortly thereafter. Anarchy… describes it well.)

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Awesome, as always.

  11. I’m having such a stressful day, and you just made it great. I LOVE YOU! But not in an embarrassing way, so please just accept this smiley face. :)

  12. I’m a Valiant 9 teacher myself. It is quite a ride. My class is so large the primary presidency is considering splitting it, but none of the kids want to be divided, so we’ve compromised by putting two teachers in there, one to teach and one to ride herd and drape a weighty arm around whomever is misbehaving. A couple of weeks ago the other teacher was late so we turned off the lights and hid under the chairs. (Well, I turned off the lights. They hid under the chairs. I don’t fit.) The week before we were building a schematic of the Plan of Salvation on the wall and for whatever reason, the kids decided it should look like a staircase. The first couple of pieces went up easily enough, the next little boy had to stre-e-e-tch to reach high enough, the next little girl had to jump, then someone had to run and jump, then someone had to take a running start and actually run a couple of steps up the wall to get his piece into place. I said afterwards we’d been climbing the walls in primary, but nobody really believed me.

    Relief Society was never this entertaining.

  13. What a great post. It really captures all of us doing our best to do our part, even when we feel we aren’t cut out for that part. I hope all my kids get teachers like you. Also, I was one of those kids who went around imagining randomly punching people, or standing up in the middle of sacrament meeting and screaming at the top of my lungs to see what people would do. Now I am in my mid-thirties and raising 6 of my own. My poor husband is a perfect angel with perfect angel thoughts and I would say 4/6 kids are little mind-hellions like me.

  14. Eric Facer – Primary pianist is the best calling. I had it off and on for 15 years myself.

    I was very young when the church switched to the block schedule, but old enough to have attended weekday Primary. Targeteers, represent!

    Frank Pellett – Thanks for the recommendation!

    Cate – You have summarized exactly why Primary is so much better than any adult class.

    Mormon – Your husband has my sympathy. (Well, I guess you do too.) :)

  15. Elizabeth – Crawling out the window is most certainly a thing. At least when I’ve been teaching.

  16. Also, Elizabeth – your comment about GD made me LOL.

  17. I taught primary for several years. There was a little boy in the age group just before mine and I kept thinking: “Don’t assign him to me. Don’t assign him to me.” He literally had driven teachers out of the primary. I decided that in order to keep him under control he would sit by me during sharing time and I would keep my arm around the back of his chair. He reached around and took my hand and pulled it close around his body and then made a clicking noise like he was hooking a seat belt. And there he stayed nestled up next to me and quiet. That was it. He sat their every week of his own accord and pulled my arm around him (always making that seat belt noise) and sitting very quietly. I am convinced all he needed was a little love. He was a cute little snot.

  18. Rosalynde says:

    Best thing I’ve ever read on BCC. Sending the link to all the Primary teachers in my ward. Thank you for showing up for these kids.

  19. Lily – I love that story. Especially the seat belt click.

  20. Your posts are the best, RJ. The absolute best. You reminded me of a little [paraphrased] from when I taught Primary. His parents were divorcing, and I knew it was hard on him, so I had some sympathy, but he enjoyed making trouble in a near-constant way. (Also a window escape artist.) But I guess your dad’s advice had reached me, so I acted like I liked him.

    After I got switched to a different class, the first few times I passed him in the hall, he ran up and hugged me. I swear that made it all worth it.

  21. Aww, wow, I miss my Primary kiddos. I definitely had to be creative. I bought a couple of kid sized yoga balls and the kids rotated sitting on them for class. However many kids divided by class time. Usually 5 to 10 min. They really liked that. Only rule, the yoga ball had to remain on the floor. And sometimes we left all the chairs out of the room.

  22. I love the yoga ball idea! I think plenty of kids would behave just for a chance to sit on one. This was a fabulous post. My daughter is “that kid”. She has ADHD and anxiety. I am so grateful for the teachers who have taken the time to love her. Our recent experience has been with her teacher telling her to “shut up” and then making not-so-subtle comments to me about various forms of very harsh discipline that worked for other kids she knows.

  23. Fun read!

    Thanks for summing things up so nicely…

    It almost makes me want to teach again, almost.

    Jenny Hatch

%d bloggers like this: