Sister Ferrin: Seminary Teacher in Action

Twila Ferrin is one of the finest teachers I’ve ever seen. I well remember one of my early experiences with her: I was struggling to teach a rowdy seminary class when she walked in. “Uh-oh,” one of the boys in the back muttered when he saw her coming. “Here comes The Boss.” The class immediately pulled itself into order; whispering stopped. The girl in the front row put away her geometry book and looked for the first time that morning as if she were paying attention. Sister Ferrin was the stake seminary coordinator, and everyone knew that she tolerated no “nonsense.”

But Sister Ferrin is more than a strict disciplinarian with a good teaching technique. Her very life—and her closeness to the Spirit—is a lesson to all who come to know her.

I greeted her that morning and invited her to participate in our discussion. “Sister Ferrin,” I said, “we’ve been discussing the commandment regarding graven images, and we’re having a little trouble understanding why the worship of images was evil enough to be included in the Ten Commandments.”

One of the boys raised his hand to agree with me. “I don’t see how building some ignorant idol could be as bad as murder or adultery.”

“Perhaps I could share with your class some insights on this subject,” Sister Ferrin said. I was relieved to let her take the floor.

Sister Ferrin, a tall, stately woman, stood and began to speak. “Several years ago, a tour I was with stopped at an out-of-the-way village in Central America. The people in the village practiced idol worship, and our guide felt that we might be interested in seeing such a phenomenon in modern times.” As she spoke, we gradually found ourselves transported far from our small, safe seminary room to a hot dusty village, surrounded by poverty and squalor. Clouds of dust and barefoot, dirty children surrounded us as we walked to an old shed—the home of the image these people worshiped. We saw ignorance and fear in the eyes of the people; we heard a small child cry out in terror as his mother carried him before the idol, which was a figure of a man filled with sawdust and clothed in an old military uniform. Fear and ugliness overcame us as Sister Ferrin described a sense of evil so palpable and so overpowering that those on the tour had asked to leave.

“I took colored slide pictures there, but I never showed those slides to anyone,” she said. “Such a powerful feeling was associated with even the pictures of this figure that we were home a year before I could even go through my slides to find and destroy them.”

I glanced at the boy in the back of the room. His eyes were riveted, unblinking, on Sister Ferrin’s face.

She went on. “I can testify to you that if the Lord has counseled us against something, it is because there is a very real force for evil involved. No commandment can be taken lightly.”

As the students filed from the room, I heard one girl say, “Boy! She teaches you whether you want her to or not. She’s the best teacher I ever saw.”

That was one of the first of many experiences that showed me the stuff Twila Ferrin was made of. It makes her worthy of the respect students give her. During that year she taught me much of teaching:

“Get your chairs into an orderly arrangement the moment you enter your classroom. No good work can be accomplished in a sloppy environment.”

“Put the music on the record player right away. Set the tone for the class with music. Music can do more for a class atmosphere than any other single thing.”

“Don’t be discouraged. Your lessons go better than you think.”

“Always be punctual. If you say you are going to be somewhere at six, be there at six, not five after.”

Hard work, music, and punctuality—all of these are basic to the character and personality of one of the most interesting, inspiring women I’ve ever met.

Sister Ferrin’s early life was filled with children. Born into the large Kinghorn family from the area around Idaho Falls, Idaho, Twila had a brother and five sisters, all much older than she, whose children were just a little younger than Twila. She fondly remembers huge family gatherings, playing with her nieces and nephews.

“I would take them into the kitchen so the grownups could talk in the parlor. I’d set them around the drainboards and cabinets like so many little crows, while we popped corn, played games, and told stories. On Saturdays I’d take them to the movies, all holding hands in a long string. How we loved those family gatherings!

“In third grade I made the decision to be a teacher because of the great love I had for younger children. I’ve never wavered in that decision or regretted it.”

By the time her professional teaching career was over, Sister Ferrin had taught everything from fourth grade to college.

With her life so centered around young people, it would seem a tragedy that Sister Ferrin has no children of her own. But she doesn’t regard her life in that light.

“In a conference address, Elder Marion D. Hanks once told us that there are two elements to parenthood,” she says. “First is the process of giving a physical body to a spirit, and second is to teach and train that spirit once it has arrived.

Those who are not privileged to grant bodies to spirits can still fulfill the second role, and this I’ve tried to do in every way I could find. I’m sure that there is no greater joy than to raise an honorable family and to see them live by the principles you’ve taught, and I do sometimes regret that my husband and I have missed the developing, maturing process that people go through as they care for children twenty-four hours a day. But my concern now is to live a worthy life. We know that in the eternal scheme we will not remain alone if we live worthily.

“And I’ve taught and loved so many young people through so many phases of their lives,” she sighed. “Once while Phil and I were stopped at a gas station while traveling through Reno, Nevada, a young man came up to me. I barely recognized him, as I hadn’t seen him for years. ‘Sister Ferrin,’ he said, ‘I never told you, but I want you to know that I still remember the things you taught me in our seminary class. It probably didn’t seem like I was listening, but I was. And the things you taught me helped me on my mission and in my life.’”

Sister Ferrin’s eyes clouded over in recalling the incident. “I often wonder whether any of the young people in our seminaries realize how very much we do care for them—just how much their welfare really means to us.”

Sister Ferrin came into my seminary class again the next fall—this time to show slides of Israel. As she came into the room in her businesslike way, a boy near the back of the room said, “Uh-oh,” and slid further down in his seat. I had to smile at him as I took a seat at the back of the room—and waited impatiently for what was about to happen.

Illustrated by Richard Hull

Sharon Elwell, mother of three, is Relief Society spiritual living teacher in her Napa, California, ward.