The Papa Teachers


When I had been serving as nursery leader for several years, the bishop’s counselor called me one day to let me know that he had called two individuals to serve as teachers in our nursery for 18-month-old children. I was glad the positions had been filled, but I was surprised to learn that one of the teachers would be my 73-year-old father-in-law. Papa was a gentle, caring man, but he had never seemed very capable when it came to toddlers. He felt much more at ease with older children.

However, since I assumed my mother-in-law would be the other new teacher, I was not too concerned. But to my further amazement, I was told that the second teacher was a member of the high priests group. He had small children still at home, though, so I hoped Papa would find the help I was sure he would need.

Little did I know. I watched with trepidation, then surprise, and finally, with respect and joy as these “papa teachers” made the transition to the Primary nursery a safe and loving one for our young children.

I used to peek in on them several times during the two hours of Primary and would often find them clutched in little clinging arms or on the floor during a game of ring-around-the-rosy. They proved to be extremely dependable and caring.

The little ones who had recently turned eighteen months old often came in crying and holding onto their parents’ legs. Within weeks, however, they would come running in for their time with the papas. I remember one little boy in particular. When finally detached from his mother, he went to Papa and planted himself on my father-in-law’s lap. And there he stayed. He colored, snacked, and heard the lesson while camped on Papa’s lap—and he felt loved.

We did feel sorry for these two men as they came every week dressed neatly in their pinstriped suits. Each week they would go home with cracker crumbs clinging to their lapels and new creases where none had been before. We joked about all chipping in and buying them some white coveralls. But the papas never complained.

The men brought a fresh perspective to our Primary work. They faithfully attended in-service meetings, informing us that they’d never been to meetings where refreshments were served. I remember one meeting in particular when we were becoming increasingly frustrated with what we felt were some serious discipline challenges. Usually Papa didn’t say much, but this time his hand went up.

“I have some problems in the nursery I wondered if you could help me with?” Our curiosity was piqued.

“Yes, Brother Edwards. What could we help you with?”

“Well,” he began quite soberly, “what do you do when you are playing ring-around-the-rosy and a child won’t fall down? Or what do you do when you smell a dirty diaper and don’t know where to begin to find the culprit?”

The previously heavy climate of the meeting changed as we exchanged questioning looks. Was this man serious or jesting? No one was sure. He continued: “How do you get these little ones to stop eating playdough?”

By this time, the few snickers had turned to full laughter as we realized that Papa was trying to lighten the moment. His questions never did get answered, but we had gained a little perspective and were able to deal with the real problems effectively.

Many a Sunday afternoon I would get a call from Papa, recounting the antics of his darlings. It was like he was seeing the world of a two-year-old for the first time. He was amazed as they came into his class as infants and left as little people. You’d never guess he’d had five children of his own.

Even after these two brethren were released, their little ones would find them in a crowd at church and slip a small hand into a larger, calloused one, saying with a shy smile, “Hi, Papa.” Many times my in-laws would be joined in sacrament meeting by a toddler squeezing in to sit with Papa. And my father-in-law’s heart is still touched when he hears a youngster excitedly inform a parent, “Hey, there’s my papa teacher.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Keith Larson

Jill Edwards is Primary president in the Eagar Third Ward, Eagar Arizona Stake.