Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Good lesson, bad presentation

When I was fifteen my family moved from High River, Alberta, Canada to Orem, Utah, USA. I had a relatively lonely summer until the school year began and I had the opportunity to meet some people, not the least of whom was a charming (and slightly awkward) young man named Andrew.

I was in a drama class that year that was fairly miserable. I made at least one friend in that class (thanks, Kristin (and Tammy, who moved in later in the year)) but everyone else seemed determined to torment me.

People would steal my homework from the inbox, copy it down on a fresh sheet of paper with their name on it, and throw my copy away (and once when they were really dumb they just erased my name and wrote theirs in my place, which is when the teacher finally believed me that it was happening because it was finally so obvious of a problem it could no longer be ignored).

They teased me about everything from being Canadian to having glasses to being skinny to getting good grades to "losing" my homework to...crying in class.

That was a cold, hard day in November, though our story actually begins in Canada, years ago, when my family moved to High River and became friends with another family at church. They had a boy a year older than my brother David, a boy my age, and a girl around my brother Patrick's age. Their parents got along well with our parents and so it was that we became family friends.

A couple of times we had the oldest boy overnight when his parents went out of town (the other kids would stay at other friends' houses). He actually came with my mom to check on me that one night I was babysitting and heard a banging sound in the house because he just happened to be staying at our house that night.

The girl would eventually join me in the Young Women's program at church, but was a few years younger than me.

The boy my age—Craig—was in my Sunday School class as well as some classes at school. I don't think we were ever close friends (because cooties) but we certainly spent time together and saw each other several times a week for nearly five years. He was pretty good friends with Patrick, though.

We'd been down in The States for about five months—putting us squarely in November—and were in the middle of dinner when the phone rang. I'm not sure who answered, but they informed my dad that "it was for [him]."

"Hello?" my dad said. "Oh, hi, Glen! How are things?"

Things were not well. Glen wasn't calling to shoot the breeze. Glen was calling to tell us that Craig had died. He'd killed himself. In the garage. In the family car. Deliberate carbon monoxide poisoning.

No one ate much dinner the evening of that phone call.

But there was school the next day, so off to school we went, feeling a little tender.

The year before the middle school librarian Mr. Z.—greatly loved by all the students—shocked our small town when he did the very same thing. Worried about a rash of "copy cat" suicides a huge funeral was held. School was called off for it. Everybody went. Nearly the entire town—and probably half the Hutterite colony—showed up for it. One of the speakers talked about suicide prevention.

That was a hard time for the town. Like I said, Mr. Zuehlke (but we just called him Mr. Z) was a favourite among students. He insisted on having story time with classes—even in middle school—and would read aloud hilarious stories like Who Did This On My Head? I would often help shelve books in the library...for the one year I attended that middle school (before I decided to homeschool due to intolerable levels of bullying).

Apparently I was just an easy target for teasing everywhere I went. Apparently hanging out in the library and shelving books wasn't considered a cool activity. But Mr. Z. was cool and the library was a safe haven. Not just for me. Craig was often in there, too. And he depended on the safety of the library for much longer than I did since he attended all three years of middle school there.

Craig was often teased as well, for mostly different reasons than I was, though we did share the whole Mormon thing. And Mormons weren't exactly well-liked in that town.

Knowing how much Craig looked up to Mr. Z. I'm sure he took his death harder than I did. And then Craig chose the very same method of suicide that Mr. Z. had.

Needless to say, I wasn't emotionally stable when I arrived to school that day in November, but I made it through my first two classes just fine. All I had to do was make it through drama, lunch, and whatever fourth period was (I can't remember now—either history or psychology, I think) and I could go home.

We had a student teacher for the first part of the year (Katie...I can't remember her last name for whatever reason) and she was very enthusiastic. She always came up with great lessons. And I'm sure that this particular day's lesson would have been just fine had it not lined up so perfectly with the tragedy I was experiencing in my life at that time. Or perhaps she should have tweaked it, anyway, just to be on the safe side.

She set the stage for the day's lesson by explaining that we were to come up with a skit depicting our untimely death—a terrible accident of sorts—and then we'd write our own obituaries to share with the class to showcase some of our life's triumphs.

She even had butcher paper so we could do chalk outlines of each other, morbidly twisting our joints into unnatural positions after falling off a building or being hit by a car or having a piano dropped on us.

Even today I'm not sure what she was thinking.

If I had been having a regular, ordinary day I'm still not sure that lesson plan would have been 100% appropriate. But I was not having a regular, ordinary day! I was having a terrible day! I was trying to work through the untimely death of one of my classmates—one of my friends!

"I can't do this!" I said, and rushed out of the room to sit in the hallway and...well...cry.

She sent Kristin out to talk to me and Kristin eventually brought out the official teacher of the class—Mrs. Broberg, who is awesome—who excused me from the day's lesson. But the damage had already been done. I'd cried in front of the entire class. Let the teasing commence...or continue.

I think the goal of Katie's lesson was a good one. She wanted us to think about our positive traits in a creative way and present them to the class with confidence. However, I think there were other ways she could have presented the lesson that would have avoided the aforementioned fiasco. For example, we could have been awarded an Oscar and needed to turn in a life sketch to be read over the podium (I have never actually watched the Oscars so I don't know if they actually do that but surely we could fudge the truth a little for the sake of the lesson). That would have been a relatively safe activity, I think.

The reason I bring this all up is because our theme for primary this year is "Families Are Forever" and that's a difficult topic to discuss for the entire year when many of our primary children have less than perfect families—probably all of them have less than perfect families. Even my family is not perfect (as hard as that is to believe), but we're doing alright. We're doing our best.

Other families are going through harder times. Some families are going through messy divorces. Some children have never even met their father. Many families are part-member families—they haven't gone to the temple to be sealed. And that's not a "hard time" per se, but I think it could be an uncomfortable time for a child in primary whose father is antagonistic toward the church or for the child whose parents don't come to church at all or for the child who feels that—today—their family isn't quite as perfect as it ought to be.

Forever families isn't about perfection but sometimes it seems our lessons are—accidentally, I'm sure—geared toward perfection.

I brought this up last year. Our theme was "I Am a Child of God," which is a relatively easy theme because you simply are a child of God and he simply loves you every minute of every day. It's easy to be reassuring with that theme (at least easier than it is with "Families Are Forever"). Anyway, last year we had lesson on building an eternal family in primary. It was a good lesson overall, but I brought up in one of our presidency meetings that we need to be careful how we present those kinds of lessons.

We can't just hold up the ideal and say, "This is what you should have."

We need to hold up the ideal and say, "If you don't have this right now, that's okay."

It's fine if your father walked out on your family. It's okay if your parents don't come to church. So what if your family doesn't always get along.

You can choose to be a good person. You can choose to create a stable home environment for your children. You can go to the temple and be sealed to your spouse and children for time and eternity someday. Someday. That's what we're after—the "someday." Because "someday" gives children hope when today might not be that great, and hope is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Faith, hope, and charity.

Two members of the presidency got it. They agreed with me 100% that we need to be better—we always need to be better—at prayerfully considering the individual needs of the children so we can make them all feel safe and loved in primary. And it's something we've spoken a lot about this past year with our new theme—"Families Are Forever" (which I didn't know would be the theme when I initially raised the issue).

Our music leader got it. She gave a beautiful lesson where she showed a picture of her extended family from ten years ago and explained that even though her family looks different ten years later—because of marriage and divorce and death and birth and adoption—she still loves all the people in that picture from ten years ago and she also loves all the people in her family picture today. Families are constantly changing and it's our job to just love everybody in them because they're our family!

And then we started learning the assigned song for the month, which is this one (though we didn't sing the verse about fathers since this was for mother's day):

Anyway, one member of our presidency did not understand what I was trying to say at all and felt that I was saying we should not teach that families can be together forever because we might offend someone, which is totally not what I was saying. She keeps saying how if we just teach the doctrine that everything will work out, which I totally agree with. However, I don't think that means we shouldn't reassure the children that they are beautiful and loved—always. We can teach the doctrine of eternal families while also teaching children that Heavenly Father loves and cares about them and their families in spite of any challenges they're having currently. We should always be offering hope.

It's possible to couch the "goal" of a lesson in a completely inappropriate way (like your personal untimely death vs. winning an oscar—just saying) and that's something we should seek to avoid in primary. That's all I'm saying.

Another example of this is Mother's Day. This past Sunday a sweet sister in the ward—whose name also happens to be Nancy—got up to speak about how she never had biological children (though she and her husband eventually adopted and raised two children). She said that when she was young and married and unable to have children Mother's Day was torture because when the young men would come around with gifts for the mothers they would only honour mothers with those gifts. She felt incredibly left out because she was a nurturer—through her job, through callings in the church, and so forth—and felt that qualified her as a mother. Furthermore, she wanted to be a mother so badly that it stung even worse.

Today, though, all Relief Society sisters (any woman 18+) are honoured on Mother's Day, which is a wonderful change—because are we not all mothers?

The "goal" behind honouring mothers on Mother's Day didn't change. The method of presenting that honour did, and it was good, and it helped a lot of women feel a little less depressed by the holiday.

Anyway, I suppose the moral of this post is just to be kind. Give people hope.

And, by all means, when you are in a position of leadership consider how to present your lesson in the kindest, least offensive way possible.


  1. Now that I think about it, Katie might not have started student teaching until January. So maybe I even had a few months to grieve before that lesson. But still. It just wasn't something I could handle—even with months of time under my belt. Some things are not easily gotten over.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for taking time to share. I was talking to a private online group of women about mother's day a few days ago. Someone had mentioned churches honoring mothers and if our churches did that. I appreciate how you tied that along with the forever family topic together. And I am horrified to hear how you were bullied wherever you went in life, but I think it's made you more sensitive to others' heartaches.

    Great lesson here. Thanks again.

  3. I am so sorry. I should have just told everyone to stay home that morning after Craig died. Sometimes I was really stupid!

  4. How horrible. When I was a divorced father and had visitation that coincided with a YW program, it seemed that one of the songs was always Families Can Be Together Forever and Elizabeth would sing along fine while I cried inside. Glad it didn't bother her.

    A few years before that the entire ward attended a Primary meeting in the chapel. One family was all dressed in white, and we were informed that they had all died somehow, without having been sealed in the temple. Then several men dressed in white came in and escorted each member of the family out of a separate door. The most heart-rending moment came when one of the men took a baby out of the arms of its mother and carried it off. I still (obviously) can remember that good/bad lesson, and hope no one will ever repeat it.

  5. On the other hand, I was myself a horrible thing to that ward. After the divorce, a friend came up to me and told me how hard I had made her life, because she had to explain to her children what had happened. Would be nice if no one ever repeated that too.

    1. Well, divorce is hard on even the bystanders, but really--much worse for the people going through it! Sometimes we all just need to be a bit more compassionate and a whole lot less prone to judge. Life is hard, and there is no way that we can understand another person's life.