I returned home from my first day at Primary in shock. My only hope came from the harried looks I saw on some of the other teachers’ faces. Maybe all the students had had a hard time settling down after vacation. I returned home the second week in total depression. Not once had I felt in control of my class. My homemade visual aids had not survived the rough handling; the boys had stood on chairs and tried to climb through the window; the girls had squabbled among themselves and with the boys.
My first impulse was to quit—no psyche could take eleven months of facing those eight-year-olds. But I had too much pride to give in. I had taught all my adult life—Sunday School, Relief Society, MIA, Seminary, college English—and I had never had a teaching failure. When my bishop asked me to take this assignment, he had said, “I feel that this work in Primary will open up new avenues of growth and development for you.” Well, it had done more than that! It was the most humbling, frustrating assignment I had ever had.
I slept little that night, and was cross with my children the next day. I finally unloaded on my husband. He listened sympathetically and offered a very practical solution: that I notify the parents about the behavior problem and send report cards home with the students each week. At first I recoiled—pride again. I didn’t mind the school class atmosphere as much as I did admitting my failure to others. I was desperate though; but as I mimeographed some “class behavior” cards and tactfully talked to each mother, I realized that this would not be enough.
The novelty of the reporting system did wear off in about a month, but during this “be quiet or else” period I had a chance to present my lessons, bear my testimony, plan a class party, and organize a service project for a widow. One of the previously noisy boys in the class told his neighbor: “Quit bugging me. Mother gives me a treat if I bring home a good report card.”
The weeks continued, some better than others, but none as disastrous as the first two. I found that constant variety—games, contests, films, and puppet stories in class, visits out of class, and frequent personal letters mailed to the students’ homes—all helped. By midyear they had learned to respect me; and more important, I had learned to love them.
Then something happened to make me think again about the whole situation. I was giving a lot of time each week to my Primary assignment, but I gave much more to my own three preschoolers. They, too, were a trial, a joy, and a challenge. It seemed so good to have Sarah, our shy, bright, intense four-and-a-half-year-old finally enjoying a preschool nursery. How grateful I was to Sarah’s teacher, who had given her the extra love and attention she had needed to put her at ease. I was looking forward to the time when Clark, our rambunctious, two-and-a-half-year-old, could go to his own Sunday School class (this was preconsolidation) and just leave me with Rachel, our year-old babbler, on Sunday mornings.
It thrilled me one Sunday when my husband came home from priesthood meeting and described the enthusiasm of our newly assigned home teachers. Brother Bowen had already asked him when they should come, what challenges our family needed, and what lessons we wanted presented to the children. You can tell he’s been a bishop, I thought. He really knows what home teaching is all about.
I tried to prepare the children, having them memorize the name of Brother Bowen, who had just moved into our ward, and explaining that he was a special friend who would come to our home to help us and teach us the things we needed to know to be good Church members.
But as fate would have it, chicken pox struck that next week. Sarah was not really sick, but she was very tired and irritable. She fell asleep on the bean bag chair right after dinner and, when the doorbell rang, she ran with her brother to the door, still dazed. When Sarah faced Brother Bowen and his companion, total strangers to her, she ran sobbing from the room. Her father hurried to comfort her, leaving me and the two youngest to greet the astonished visitors.
“She was in a sound sleep when you rang,” I explained, embarrassed. “She hasn’t been well. Really, this is a very atypical behavior.” Our new home teachers were kind and understanding that night, but I had so eagerly anticipated this visit that I felt really let down.
I said nothing about it to Sarah until the Sunday before the next scheduled visit, when I pointed out that our home teacher was giving the opening prayer and that he’d visit us again. Thursday arrived and the doorbell rang at precisely seven. This time Clark and Rachel ran to the door; Sarah lingered behind in the kitchen.
“Jim, invite them in,” I whispered to my husband. “I’ll see if I can coax Sarah out.”
“Here, honey,” I said. “Why don’t you go show Brother Bowen and Pat the kite that you made in nursery school today?” I handed her the colorful triangle from the bulletin board.
“No, I don’t want to,” she said, setting it down. “I’ll just stay here and color.”
“Please, come in with the family. You can sit on my lap.” “No, I don’t want to.”
“Come with me,” I insisted, gently but firmly picking her up and carrying her into the living room where the others were already seated.
“Hi, Sarah, how are you tonight?” Brother Bowen greeted her warmly, extending his hand. She turned her head and buried it in my shoulder. “I have a special lesson for you and Clark tonight,” Brother Bowen continued cheerfully, sitting on the floor. “Come sit down by me and tell me what this is a picture of.”
Curious, Sarah peeked out at the large picture of children sitting reverently that he pulled from a pile. I quickly slid to the floor, still holding her on my lap.
“Boy and girl,” spoke up Clark.
“That’s right, young man,” said Brother Bowen in delight. “And what are they doing?”
“They’re standing on their heads,” answered Sarah impishly.
“Folding arms,” answered Clark, folding his own.
“Great,” praised Brother Bowen. “And why are they being quiet? Whose house are they in?”
“In Santa Claus’s,” said Sarah, and I blushed at her contrariness. She’s acting just like my Primary boys, I thought, deliberately giving all the wrong answers.
At the end of the lesson on reverence and the family prayer, Brother Bowen pulled a beribboned candy bar out of his pocket. “Here, Sarah. I brought you a little treat to share with you brother and sister.”
I saw the look of longing in Sarah’s eyes but she shook her head. “Give it to Clark,” she answered in masochistic defiance.
“Thank you,” spoke up Clark, reaching out his hand.
“He’s really sharp, isn’t he?” Brother Bowen commented to me.
“Yes, they all are,” I defensively replied. As the home teachers left and Jim took the children into the kitchen to divide the candy bar, I stood looking at the closed door, tears in my eyes. “Please God, don’t let him give up on her,” I prayed silently. “I know she’s acted terribly, but she can be so good, so sweet. Please help him to be patient and loving with her.”
Suddenly those six little Primary faces, so obnoxious for the first four weeks, appeared in my mind. “Oh my,” I gasped in a sudden new understanding of my stewardship. “How many of their mothers must have offered this same prayer just last September?” My resolve to be patient and creative with those I teach has not wavered since.