Me and My Sixty-six Boys

“You’ll be rewarded with extra stars in your crown!” everyone told me when I agreed to take over what was, at that time, the Guide Patrol class in Primary. The class was to prepare eleven-year-old boys to become deacons, and to teach them enough about Scouting so that they could become Second Class Scouts.

The bishop told me that two boys in our ward had just turned eleven, bringing the class total to thirteen. I was mumbling “Thirteen!” under my breath when the bishop’s firm hand clasp and smile melted my resistance.

As I drove home, I remembered my one day as substitute Guide Patrol teacher. My friend Marla had called that day to tell me that she had either croup or echolalia in the fragile stage, and that she had to stay indoors. Since there were only two hours before Primary began, I drove to Marla’s home for the lesson manual. She met me at the door, holding a very large cardboard box.

“It’s all in there. Thanks,” she said, and closed the door. The box held a lesson manual and the roll. Personal teaching aids and other necessities filled the rest of the space. It was frightfully crowded.

I dug around until I located the lesson manual, and prepared the lesson. I naively felt ready to teach the class.

I didn’t actually have trouble that day until I turned my back to write on the blackboard.

When I turned around, Kent’s legs were about to disappear through an open window. Scott leaped in time to get a stranglehold on the legs while Doug sat on Richard’s chest to prevent him from entering the fray. For the rest of the time I let the boys take turns leading the singing of hymns, which they sang with gusto.

With this incident still in mind, I faced the task of teaching this class permanently.

Teaching the boys was not as terrifying as I had anticipated. I learned early that my lessons had to contain concise doctrine interspersed with much directed activity. However, the skill awards were another matter.

One of the many skills my Tenderfoot boys were to pass before they could become Second Class Scouts was knot tying. I was supposed to teach them, but I didn’t even know how to tie a decent square knot, let alone the complicated slip knots and hitches the boys were required to know.

I asked around for help, but I couldn’t seem to find anyone else who knew how to tie the knots either. So one evening I picked up a length of rope and propped the Boy Scout Handbook open to a diagram on the clove hitch.

Eventually, after many despairing cries, I learned to tie every knot—except the bowline. That one eluded me. All I could figure out was that the rope had to go around the waist, with the left hand tautly holding one end while the right hand worked the free end of the rope forming a slipknot around the waist. The rope could then be used to hoist any luckless individual who had fallen where he shouldn’t have fallen. After some discouraging hours spent trying to tie the bowline, I finally got it right.

Two weeks later we had a lesson on knot tying. By that time my class had increased to twenty-three, and we were crowded into one small room. I had removed all chairs before class, leaving only a table so we could use its legs as posts to tie knots on. By the time the bell rang I was reasonably sure that each of my Tenderfoot Scouts had tied at least one knot correctly.

As the last boy filed past me at the door, each reciting an Article of Faith, I congratulated myself on the day.

Then a timid cough caught my attention. I bent over and there was Edward, roped fast to a table leg. At least the slip knots that held him had been tied correctly and he was released quickly.

Teaching my boys had its rewards, though. When I was released after more than six years as Guide Patrol leader, I found that in preparing sixty-six boys to become deacons and Scouts I had learned much more than I had taught.

I learned to “cut sign” along a forest trail. I learned that boys are impressed by a teacher who doesn’t faint when a watersnake is dropped into her lap. I learned that they can be tolerant of the shortcomings of their peers, and that raw potatoes, raw onions, and raw hamburger wrapped in aluminum foil have to be cooked in a hole under hot ashes for more than twenty minutes before they become a meal worth eating.

I learned how to identify many trees and shrubs native to our area, including poison oak, which can cause a terrible itch. I learned that boys are fond of corny jokes, that their voices don’t suffer if they talk in a high-pitched yell throughout an entire day, and that one minute after they have helped toss another boy into an icy stream they can kneel in wide-eyed wonder beside the delicate beauty of a wild violet. I learned that many boys understand gospel principles by the time they are eleven years old, and that they are exploring ways to put those principles into practice. I learned that boys who come from a home where they receive little attention will do almost anything to get attention in class, and that the worse their behavior, the more love they need.

I learned that thoughtless jeers from thoughtless boys can cause terrible wounds, but that other boys know this and begin quietly to speak words to heal such wounds.

During those years as a teacher of boys I cast my bread upon the waters, and rewards I never expected began to come back to me. “My boys” remained my boys as they grew up to leave on missions. They sent me wedding invitations when they took lovely girls to the temple, and brought their first-born sons and daughters to my home.

But the rewards that touched me most came after my husband died suddenly. One day as I walked toward a home now so empty, Jerry, who had given me more headaches than my other sixty-five boys combined, ran across the street to enfold me in his strong, young arms.

He said, “Teacher, if you need anything—anything—call me! Because I love you.”

I thought, Oh, my, after I yelled at you so many times? “Well,” I said aloud, “the engine in my car sounds funny. Could you? …”

“Be up first thing tomorrow.”

At dawn the next morning, the temperature twenty degrees above zero, I heard noises outside. I went to the kitchen window. The hood of my car was up. Jerry, in shirt sleeves, whistled as he banged away. By the time he left, my car ran better than it had in weeks.

In spring, I looked out to see seven of my boys, now young men, returned from missions, converging on my yard. Two carried electric trimmers which they began to use on my straggly evergreens; two more ran a power rake across my lawn while the others, carrying pruning shears, shinnied up my fruit trees. When they left, my yard, which had been such a worry to me, was ready for the summer.

So many rewards over so many years. Just last spring I was in the Salt Lake Temple, hurrying down a hallway, when I almost collided with a man who topped six feet six inches, deliberately blocking my way. I bent my head back to study him, but it took me a minute to place him as Edward, the shy little fellow who had been roped to the table legs. I was sure he would long since have forgotten me.

He hadn’t. Taking the hand of a girl, tall and beautiful, he put his other hand on my shoulder.

“Debra,” he said, “this is Sister Syndergaard. She was my teacher.”

Oh, yes, my dear young man. And you, with so many others, were mine.

[illustration] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

Iris B. Syndergaard, an editor and writer, is the mother of four. She currently resides in the Orchard 10th Ward, Woods Cross Utah East Stake.