The Influence of an Inspired Teacher
Contributed By Camille Fronk Olson, Church News Contributor
“As parents, we are to be the prime gospel teachers and examples for our children—not the bishop, the Sunday School, the Young Women or Young Men, but the parents. … When all is said and done, the home is the ideal forum for teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.” —Brother Tad R. Callister, Sunday School general president
Teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ from the scriptures has been at the heart of my professional career. Growing up during a time when women were not hired to teach seminary and when the youth curriculum in the Church focused more on modern-day applications and skill building than on scripture literacy, I never envisioned that I would one day have a full-time job as a religion teacher.
Without knowing it at the time, from my early teens my father became my mentor and teacher to help me question assumptions, search for valid answers from trustworthy sources, and articulate doctrinal truths in cogent and simple ways. His success in drawing me and one or two of my siblings into Sunday afternoon discussions occurred because he was a searcher and always returned from church with topics to research.
After we finished dinner and had helped Mom clean up the dishes, he created an irresistible environment for deeper learning by citing a comment made in his quorum meeting, probing what we thought of the reasoning, and asking us a follow-up question that the exchange had inspired. He was always reading something about the history of the Church and sometimes shared with us stories that could have been disconcerting if they were not explored in a setting of faith and trust. Through spirited debates considering the implications and alternatives of those incidents in our religion’s history, however, my trust and testimony in the restored gospel increased after recognizing God’s power to produce miracles through imperfect servants.
Dad’s thirst for deeper gospel understanding was sincere. It was sparked at a time when he was a rebellious boy and quickly falling between the cracks. A Sunday School teacher planted a seed of testimony by taking a special interest in him and preparing lessons that made the people in the stories come alive and that connected with Dad’s interest in history. I knew how much that teacher meant to him because he often spoke of how he came to be in her class, which awakened his love for learning.
Because of his mother’s illness, my father was often left to fend for himself and quickly developed bad habits. After attending Primary only one time, he easily concluded he didn’t like it so never went again. Similarly, he tried to get out of going to Sunday School. His usual tactic for evading the Sunday morning meeting was to arise early and run off to play until he knew the meeting had ended.
On one such Sunday, when Dad was about seven or eight years old, his father was coming home from church and found him playing marbles in a vacant lot. He told him he should be ashamed of himself for playing in the dirt instead of going to church. For some reason that chastisement motivated him to give Sunday School another try the following week.
In hindsight he would say that this decision changed his life. Of the experience, he later wrote, “I happened to go to Sister [Sylvia] Christensen’s class and she taught Church History. I was real interested in the class, and she did such a good job that I came back and got in the habit of going to Church. I consider this a turning point in my life as I was getting to be a regular rotten apple.” Dad could not have known much about the Church or the gospel when he stepped foot into Sister Christensen’s class, but she helped him feel that he belonged and was capable of learning.
I was never privileged to meet Sylvia Christensen, but her influence on my life is profound. Because she inspired my father to love gospel study, he desired to develop a similar love in his children for studying doctrine, religious history, and the scriptures in context. Those impromptu Sunday afternoon family scripture discussions that Dad instigated became a safe haven for asking any question and for feeling comfortable with the realization that an easy answer is not always possible or best. By using the scriptures as the foundation for shaping answers, he helped me trust in my ability to learn from them in personal study.
I also like to think that because of Sylvia Christensen, my dad did not underestimate my potential—a girl’s potential—for talking doctrine and religious history. My confidence in gospel scholarship and scriptural insights was born when my father cared to engage children in meaningful scripture-based discussions. I will be forever grateful for Sister Christensen and other teachers like her who know and believe what they teach and care about each person in the class.