On several occasions I have heard versions of a story, presumably based on fact, that goes something like this: A guide or host at one of the Church’s visitors’ centers was one day approached by a man well advanced in age. He acknowledged that he was a member of the Church but said that he had not been associated with the Church since his years as a youth. He told of one day being expelled from a Sunday School class—apparently for misconduct. He said he had never been inside a church building since that day, and he further explained that his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren numbered more than one hundred, and not one of them was a member of the Church.
When I have heard this story retold, it has generally been to illustrate the dreadful price that was paid because of the rash act of an irate Sunday School officer. But we do not hear the Sunday School officer’s side of the story. Nor do we take into account the responsibility of the young man for his own conduct and his years of unrelenting, unrepentant bitterness and animosity that have poisoned his own life as well as the lives of so many of his offspring.
The story is filled with tragedy. Who is responsible for the tragedy, and how could it have been avoided?
As I have opportunities to visit in the stakes of the Church, I frequently hear reports of difficulties that are experienced by teachers of young men and women in the classes of Sunday School, Young Women, and Aaronic Priesthood quorums. Occasionally I learn of situations where the turnover of teachers is so regular that priesthood leaders are hard put to find replacements. Such circumstances are generally reported as an illustration of how much the Church needs an effective teacher development program. Obviously that need exists, but I cannot feel that the full responsibility for these unfortunate situations rests with the teachers.
For many years I have been haunted by an experience that occurred in my own life. I was working in a community where a full-time seminary was operated adjacent to the local high school. Part way through one school year, a teaching vacancy occurred at the seminary because of a health problem experienced by one of the teachers. I was invited to assume several of his classes each day over a period of time until a replacement could be found. In most respects it was a delightful experience and one that carries fond recollections for me. In one of the classes, however, there was a young man who proved to be a real challenge. He was in his final year of high school. He was bright and talented. It was obvious that he was popular with the other students and had a considerable influence with them. However, his conduct in the seminary class was generally disruptive. He sought for attention and usually got it as a result of his misbehavior in class.
In my desire to establish an atmosphere in the class where we could discuss and learn about things of a spiritual nature, I was repeatedly frustrated by the antics of this young man. He craved the attention of the other students. Several private consultations with him brought no improvements. In our interviews he was amiable enough, but he reverted to his disruptive behavior as soon as the next class convened.
I spoke with the counseling staff at the high school across the street from the seminary and learned from them that the young man came from a single parent home and that he was a constant problem in his classes at the high school, even though his aptitude test scores showed above average ability and talent.
There finally came a day when I knew I must do something decisive if I were to maintain some sense of order and direction in the class. After a typical outburst I invited the young man to step outside the classroom with me. There I told him that I could no longer sacrifice the opportunities of the other students in order to accommodate his whimsical behavior. I told him that he was no longer welcome in the class until he could control his conduct and contribute to the spiritual atmosphere necessary in a seminary classroom. He spun on his heel without comment and left the building. I never saw him again.
His mother called me that afternoon and expressed her displeasure and distress over what I had done. She warned me that the expulsion of her son from the seminary class would come back to haunt me.
The mother’s prediction has been correct. I have never been able to completely free my mind of that experience. Within a week or two of these events, my work was changed, and I was moved to another part of the country. I have no idea whether the young man ever returned to seminary. I don’t even remember his name now because it has been more than 20 years. I have sometimes wondered if there is a father of a large family out there somewhere who blames his estrangement from the Church on the action of an unsympathetic seminary teacher many years ago.
I am sure I have learned some things in the intervening years that would have helped me handle the situation more competently. Perhaps there are some things I could have done that I did not do to help the young man change his attitude and conduct. I am sure there were. However, as I look back upon those experiences, I recall vividly the concern I felt for the other students in the class and the intense desire I felt to somehow bless their lives. As my mind runs back over that episode, I inevitably come to the same dilemma I faced the day when I invited the young man to leave the seminary class. In addition to my responsibility for his spiritual opportunities, what was my responsibility to the other class members whose opportunities were being jeopardized by the conduct of the young man? What were his responsibilities?
Very recently I had another experience that represents something of a counterpoint to the episode with the young man. I was visiting a stake conference and, following the Saturday evening session, I was greeted by a woman who asked, “Do you remember me?” The face was vaguely familiar, but I needed help. The sister reminded me that she had been one of my students in a high school English class many years ago. I immediately remembered her as I had known her 32 years before. She was one of the student leaders, a good scholar, a cheerleader. We reminisced for a time on the experiences we had shared. She was pleased to introduce me to her family. Some of her children were married, and one son was serving as a missionary. There were several grandchildren. This was obviously a solid family, making a significant contribution to the community and the Church.
During our visit this good sister suddenly confronted me with the question, “Do you remember the day you asked me to leave your English class?” I was surprised by the question and could not remember such an event. I wondered if she might be confused in her recollection because I could recall nothing but good experiences with her as a student. “No,” she insisted, “there was the one day when we had a reckoning. I had been talking more than I should have done, and when you attempted to correct me, I made some remarks that I shouldn’t have made. You then asked me to leave the room. I was startled. No other teacher had ever disciplined me in that way. I refused to leave, and you assisted me to the hallway outside the classroom, telling me that I could return when I had learned to behave like a lady.
“I was incensed and embarrassed. I thought of the things I could do to get retribution. My father had influence in the community, and he would not tolerate this.
“Later in the day I began to reflect on what had happened. I realized that you were right and I was wrong. I knew then that teachers and classmates had too often tolerated that kind of behavior from me and that it was not good. I confronted a quality in myself that I had never been required to confront before, and I decided that I would change. That’s why I came back and apologized to you for my conduct in the class. It was a turning point in my life in an important way, and I will always be grateful to you.”
Here was a case where a young woman sensed her responsibility in an unfortunate situation and took responsible action to make things right. It has provided me with some interesting food for thought. What accounted for the difference between the reaction of this young woman and that of the young man who walked away from the seminary class? And what differences have come into their lives over the intervening years as a result of the way they responded to these situations and others like them?
Parents, teachers, leaders, friends—all have a responsibility to care and love and help. But there is a point at which their responsibility joins with the responsibility of the individual for whom the care and love and help are manifest. One who frequently finds himself in controversy or difficulty with others must ask himself honestly to what degree he is contributing to the problem. And he must be responsible enough to correct behavior when it is detrimental to his good and the good of others. There is only continued heartache and unhappiness for ourselves and others when we excuse our own faults and place the blame upon those whose lives interact with ours. We must be responsible.
Alma, the Book of Mormon teacher and leader, felt the frustration of attempting to help and motivate people who would not respond. In a moment of such frustration he exclaimed, “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth” (Alma 29:1).
I suppose Alma was remembering something about his experience in the city of Ammonihah, where he had been rebuffed and rejected. Perhaps if he could have shaken the earth under the feet of these people, he could have frightened them into submission. But Alma remembered that this is not the Lord’s way.
“I ought not to harrow up in my desires, the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men … according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
“Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience” (Alma 29:4–5).
In the final analysis, once we know what is right and what is wrong, we must become individually accountable for our own conduct. It is vitally important to have good parents, but it is equally important and necessary to be good sons and daughters. After all, we are accountable. It is essential to have good teachers and leaders, but it is equally essential to be good students and good followers. We cannot place our responsibilities upon the shoulders of another. The Lord has so designed the nature of mortal life that we cannot escape the ultimate consequences of our own willful acts.
Young people, when you complain about uninteresting, inadequate teachers, advisers, and leaders, do you honestly ask yourselves how good you are at being students, class members, quorum brothers, sons, and daughters? Are you doing all you can to improve possibilities for yourselves and others, or are you finding excuses to become contributors to the problems that sometimes exist? And when you make mistakes, do you have enough courage and integrity to acknowledge your part in the problem and to resolve to do better?
I keep hoping that someday in one of my visits to some part of the Church I will be approached by a man who will say, “Do you remember me? I’m that seminary student who walked away from your seminary class that day. I’ve learned some important lessons in life since then. I want you to know that everything has turned out all right.”
Then maybe some of the apprehensions I have felt since that day 20 years ago will disappear. And perhaps his dreams will be less troubled too.