Everybody Needs a Winnie
I have to feel sorry for any young Latter-day Saint who doesn’t have a Winnie Gunderson in his life.
How fortunate I was to have been among that select group—a few hundred of us raised in Taylorsville, Utah, sometime in the last thirty years—who trudged off to Primary each week to assemble beneath the tattered manual, the stern eye, and the huge heart of Winnie.
She loved children, especially boys. And we all knew it. Sometimes, I fear, in our mischievous way we took advantage of that love and put more activity into her class than was called for in the lesson plan.
Not that her lessons were ever dull. Winnie’s lessons were anything but dull. No one else I have ever met could hold two dozen eleven-year-olds so spellbound year after year the way she did with her mostly true stories of pioneers on the wild frontier.
Church history was surely her favorite subject, and no other teacher in my experience has been able to convey the early spirit of the Latter-day kingdom so vividly and so well. So closely did we associate the teacher with her teachings that it was difficult for our young minds to know where history ended and where Winnie began.
For example, I could never envision Winter Quarters without imagining Winnie there. And I never saw Winnie without catching a glimpse of the strength one must have had to survive a winter in that pioneer community.
I always pictured Winnie personally swatting those ravenous crickets in the Salt Lake Valley, or whipping the oxen across the plains, or grinding up her best china to use in the Kirtland Temple mortar. She was my image of the pioneer.
And she tried to make pioneers out of us, too. The highlight of our class was the midsummer trek across the old gravel pit. We pulled covered red wagons, the girls wore long dresses and bonnets, and often there would be a borrowed Shetland pony or two. At the end of the trail, our own “this-is-the-place” came at sundown in Winnie’s back yard, where we ate salted pork and sourdough biscuits, and sang pioneer songs.
Many trails led to Winnie’s home, for quick visits, pranks, or class committee meetings. For her, teaching was more than a weekly class.
Her interest in us never lagged through the years. Many a young man has singled her out for thanks in his missionary farewell talk. But she would quickly reclaim the upper hand with encouraging letters from home.
It was a great honor at fourteen to be invited back to Winnie’s young class to show her next “generation” just how old a boy the Prophet Joseph was when he knelt in the Sacred Grove. As she proceeded to paint the scene in our minds, it was almost as if that same divine light descended upon us in the classroom. And in a sense, it did.
Winnie’s shining light kindled scores of simple but lasting testimonies. Would that every teacher could realize what impact he could have on the lives of young students. Winnie did!
The Fuja Magic with Children
A friend and I were discussing the challenges of teaching children correct principles. She mentioned that her nine-year-old son’s misbehavior sometimes had her stumped. Then she asked a question I had heard before and have heard many times since: “Have you heard what Irene Fuja did?”
“Tell me,” I replied.
“Well, my boy was climbing through the church window when he should have been in Primary class. Irene’s the first counselor, you know. She took my boy into a room alone and firmly told him that such behavior was totally unacceptable. But she didn’t stop there. The next day she sent him a letter explaining that even though she had spoken firmly to him, she appreciated him. She thanked him for carrying her Primary supplies. She assured him that she knew he had great potential. She told him she’d be watching him in the future and was looking forward to seeing him in Primary the next week.”
“Sounds like Irene,” I said.
“Oh, but she didn’t stop there. My boy was the only child in the ward to enter a special essay contest. Irene bought him a plaque and wrote a note congratulating him. It said, ‘I’m watching you, and I like what I see.’”
Since this conversation, I have watched Irene Fuja even more closely, and I like what I see.
Irene is the mother of two boys and two girls, ranging in age from seventeen years to twenty months, and she has also had Lamanite children in her home under the Placement Program. Currently she is the Primary president for Provo Utah North Stake.
Irene’s life now is not quite the way she pictured it as a child. During high school, she planned to attend Brigham Young University and become an English teacher, but when she received her patriarchal blessing, there wasn’t a word in it about teaching English. “There was,” Irene says, “a considerable amount about my responsibility as a mother and my role as a woman in the Church. I started to think differently, and decided my ambition should be to have a family and run an efficient home.”
She says that because she had three children in ten years, she felt she would be able also to reach out and touch the lives of other children. When she lived in married student housing, she saw a need for children to have someone spend time with them. “Many times the mothers sent their children out to play, and they’d never check to see what kind of play they were involved in,” she remembers. “So I went outside with my children and included other children in our play.”
She learned that children enjoy having an adult play with them. When she went outside to jump rope with her daughters, girls from all over the neighborhood joined them. When she was asked, “How do you find time to do it?” she thought, “If you don’t have time for your children, what else is there in life?”
When the Fujas moved to their present ward, Irene asked her husband not to tell anyone of the executive positions she had held—Young Women president, Relief Society president, stake Primary president—because although she would willingly accept any call, she particularly wanted to teach a class. She had filed pictures and story ideas since teaching Primary in her high school years, but had never had the opportunity since then to put the material to use.
Her opportunity came, and she was called to teach twelve four-year-olds in Sunday School. Of that experience, Irene says, “I loved it. Teaching is as much a challenge as you want to make it. You can give a lesson and think it no challenge, or you can go the extra mile and make it as challenging as you want.”
Irene still tries to keep in touch with her former pupils. For one little boy in particular she does special things each year. She recalls, “He could distract three boys on either side of him, completely ignoring the lesson, or so it appeared, but if I stopped in my presentation and asked him a question, he knew the answer.”
Sometimes she would prepare a treat before leaving for class so that on the way home she could say, “Hey, I’ve got a treat in the cupboard. Let’s go eat it!” This gave her a chance to visit with the children and become their friend.
Irene later served as a Blazer A teacher. She used her creativity to make the lessons a memorable experience for those ten-year-old boys. For example, once she buried some coins and her lesson notes on the Holy Ghost in baby food bottles in her garden. It took the boys two weeks, with the help of a map the second week, to find all of the bottles. The coins she had enclosed gave them enough money to buy ice cream cones for the group. After the purchase, and with the boys confined in her car contentedly eating ice cream, Irene explained to them that some people spend all their lives running here and there digging for happiness instead of following the Holy Ghost as a map for guidance.
To make an Easter lesson special, she recorded it, with her husband as narrator, and rolled up a picture of the Savior for each boy. Then she took the tape and a recorder to each boy’s home, asking him to listen to the lesson by himself and then unroll the picture. Several of the boys said it was the best lesson they had ever had, and they mounted the picture on a plaque as a permanent reminder of the message.
If a boy was absent from class, Irene arranged for him to receive the lesson through notes, a telephone call, or a visit to his home. If a boy was present but “missed” the lesson because of misbehavior in class, Irene would arrange to go to his home and present the lesson to him and his parents. On one such occasion she discovered that the boy’s father had gathered together his entire family to hear the lesson—his wife and their ten children, including a married daughter and her husband and baby. Irene recalls, “I was a nervous wreck by the time I had finished that lesson. But it was a good experience.”
One time she bought each boy a copy of the New Testament and encouraged them to read all of it. With that completed, they then went on to read the Book of Mormon. “It was interesting,” Irene observes. “The boys you might think wouldn’t read it were the first ones done.”
As her students graduated from her classes, they made a commitment with Irene that they would keep in touch, and she keeps a journal of all those with whom she corresponds. One boy is now ten. Two years ago, Irene collected a stack of paper airplanes he had folded from sacrament meeting programs. Now she sends him several of the planes on special occasions along with a personal note. She is saving some of the planes for future events such as priesthood ordinations and his entrance into the mission field. “He may be a little embarrassed now,” she says, “but by the time he is ready to leave on his mission, I think he’ll be waiting for his paper airplane.”
Does this personal interest and commitment to a calling always bear fruit? “You won’t always have one hundred percent success,” Irene says, “but if you don’t try, you will have no success at all.”
A Spirit of Order
Primary day is like a second Sunday in our home. It has been that way ever since I received a witness that Primary is a program from our Heavenly Father.
That witness came to me in a Primary preparation meeting. I had had the feeling that the meeting was going to provide me with a spiritual feast, and I was not disappointed. As the Spirit whispered to me, I knew that I needed to get my spiritual and physical house in order on Monday so that Tuesday, our Primary day, would be as free as possible from regular household chores and problems.
Monday became a twin sister to Saturday as I anticipated my family’s needs by cleaning, cooking, washing, and preparing for the following day. My family supported me as I prepared my Primary lesson and then presented it to them as part of our family home evening. Often, my Primary Star A class benefitted from my family’s suggestions.
When Tuesday came, everything was in order. The Spirit was invited into our home as we came together in family prayer. With my husband, Martin, off to work, and our seven-year-old Michelle off to school, I would put the finishing touches on my week-long lesson preparation, and then make some telephone calls to ensure that all would be well for the Primary meeting. Then I sought an even greater outpouring of the Spirit by reading and studying the scriptures. Finally, before leaving for Primary with three-year-old Michael, I would set the table in advance for our evening meal, complete with the best china and fresh flowers.
I never cease to feel that Primary day belongs to the Lord, and that should he knock at our door, I could happily invite him in.
All Over the World
“Primary is all over the world. Although spoken in many tongues, the message remains the same: to teach the children to pray and walk uprightly before the Lord,” said President Spencer W. Kimball.
And the lives of approximately 500,000 children—member and nonmember alike—reflect that gospel influence. Nonmembers have joined the Church, inactive members have been reactivated, and the children themselves have had their testimonies strengthened as they have shared gospel standards.
For example, a Seattle, Washington, kindergarten teacher asked a Primary boy’s parents why he always referred to her as “Sister.” After the LDS parents had explained, they admonished their son to call his teacher “Mrs.” A few days later when they checked to see if he was doing as he had been told, he said, “We call our teacher ‘Sister.’” The “we” was the entire kindergarten class that he had converted to using the familiar LDS term—and they understood why it was used.
Across the nation, in Florida, five-year-old Jeffrey was invited to supper at a nonmember friend’s house. It was his first time “on his own” away from his family. When the meal was served they included iced tea. After a few moments Jeffrey politely said, “May I have something else to drink, please? Tea is not good for me, and I do not drink it.”
Impressed with his conviction, his hostess served him milk, and later telephoned his mother to relate the experience. A brief explanation of the Word of Wisdom led to other questions, and the nonmember family viewed the film Man’s Search for Happiness and accepted a copy of the family home evening manual. Jeffrey had sown the gospel seed.
A tiny three-year-old’s father was not a member of the Church, and her mother had been inactive since high school. Week after week Melanie’s Primary leaders picked her up at the nursery so she could attend that one meeting of the Church.
Two years passed. Melanie was very faithful and listened carefully to the lessons. She learned all the songs and took their cheerful melodies back into her home. An uncle who had been inactive was impressed; his nonmember wife took the missionary lessons and was converted. Now, because of a little girl’s natural love for the gospel, her aunt and uncle are active and preparing to go to the temple. Her mother is also returning to activity.
Sister Norma Tuckfield of the Holbrook Arizona Stake tells of the day she was asked to be a Primary teacher. “I was an inactive member, and I had no teaching experience. But because I love children I said yes.
“On my first day, I felt quite shaky and I had cold, cold hands. But the president brought a little boy to me and explained that he had been found under a tree across the street, praying for the courage to come to his first Primary. As he put his cold hand into my cold hand, we comforted each other, and I felt an inner resolve to teach the children all that they must do ‘to live with Him some day.’ I have been a Primary teacher now for twenty years.”
From the Berlin Germany Stake comes the story of Anke, a friendly and neat little girl, who, with her brothers and sisters, was unhappy because of constant fighting and parental disharmony in the home. “When a little friend brought her to Primary, I felt that Anke only wanted to be with people who were good to each other and who were also able to give her love. After a year and a half she is one of the most alert students in her class, and though they had refused many times, her parents finally gave permission for her baptism. Now the missionaries will teach her parents also.”
And in the same stake, ten-year-old Uwe, who laughs and jokes like a typical boy now, has had much to overcome. He was born with a serious deformity and the other children often laughed at him. When he was five, and his father died, Uwe became completely disoriented, and he developed behavioral problems.
Then the missionaries came, and through patient teachers in Primary he learned that he could be reunited with his father one day in an eternal loving family. Uwe’s tension disappeared; he progressed daily; and now he and his mother are both active in the branch. Uwe has survived a serious operation through which his deformity has almost disappeared. They feel greatly blessed.
From the Osaka Japan Stake, Sister Kyoko Toyama, formerly the stake Primary president, tells how, as a school girl, she began attending Primary to help her classmate who felt inadequate in a teaching assignment. “Soon a teaching responsibility in Primary was given to me, though I was just an investigator. I quit club activity at school and began going to a library to prepare lessons for each Saturday. There was no one to instruct us about Primary organizations, so when I learned from a missionary that he used to have activities in Primary, we began to teach the children dances and started art classes.
“After joining the Church I served as a branch Primary president and later as Osaka District Primary president, and we began to receive wonderful instructions from the general board. I began to feel that I would not regret putting all of myself into this Primary program. I am still single, but I have more children than any other sister in the stake, because I work as though all the Primary children were my own.”