One look at my fellow seminary students, and a tough assignment became easy.
No More -Ites21941_000_011
“Okay, class. You have two weeks to complete this assignment. Remember that it is a research essay. You must present detailed observations and a conclusion, not just an opinion.”
Miss Lambert’s instructions were clear enough, but my brain was rejecting them. Another assignment! Don’t teachers ever coordinate assignments, or is it just part of a giant plan to keep students so overworked that they don’t have the strength to fool around in class?
I took the typewritten sheet from Wendy Baker as she passed them out to the class. She was positively glowing with enthusiasm. Why do some people thrive on schoolwork?
“It’s a tough one, Matt.” She smiled brightly. “We can work in groups if we want.”
I attempted a smile, then pretended to get engrossed in the essay question: “Racial Harmony. Is it possible in our community, and what are some ways we can achieve it?”
I glanced around the class to see if the reactions of others were the same as mine. With the exception of Wendy, they looked pretty similar—heads down, tired and disgruntled expressions, a few hands being run through already ruffled hair as if the movement could generate some extra brain power.
My sociology class in New Zealand is quite diverse, a mixture of European, Maori, Polynesian, South African, and Asian. We share a few classes, but most people stick with their own group at lunch time and after school. No disharmony but no great harmony either.
“What’s the frown for, Matt?” Miss Lambert stood beside my desk. “Do you have some questions about the assignment?”
“Uh, no … not really.” I always felt a bit flustered around Miss Lambert. “I was just looking around the class, and I figure we all get on pretty well.”
She tapped at her chin with the tip of her pen; then she smiled with a sort of faraway look. “Okay, Matt. That answer’s fine for now, but I want you to be able to tell me how different you feel when you’ve finished making your observations. How much better do you think it could be?”
I guess I was wrong to expect Mum’s sympathy with my lack of enthusiasm for the assignment. I read it out to her after she’d watched me inhale a reasonable quantity of cake and milk after school.
“What’s the problem?” She rescued the last bit of cake for my sisters. “You’ve got plenty of places to gather information right around you.”
I must have stared blankly because she took a deep breath and started speaking more slowly and carefully, like when I had a project to do in primary school.
“Think about it, Matthew.” I know she’s being serious when she says my whole name. “You have to find examples of racial harmony. I’m just suggesting you look closer to home first.”
Then came the classic closing statement. “You know I’m happy to help you, Matthew, but you have to make an effort. Now I have to go and do some shopping. Don’t eat all the cake.”
I did make an effort. I looked at some newspapers and some magazines and found some pretty negative articles about the crime rate and unemployment being higher in some racial groups in New Zealand, and some other articles about the country being inundated with immigrants. The one thing I did notice as I searched was that there really wasn’t anything particularly positive written about racial harmony. Did that mean it didn’t exist, or wasn’t it worth writing about?
I decided to think about it later. I mean, I had two weeks.
Mum did her shopping all right. After dinner she presented me with a small red book with “4 Nephi 1:15–17” written in large print on the front. [4 Ne. 1:15–17]
“I thought you could use this as your research notebook. The scripture might be helpful as well.”
Good old Mum. Trying to be helpful without helping. I gave her a hug, tucked the notebook into my back pocket, and went to check out some new CDs.
The notebook fell on the floor as I got ready for bed. I guess my conscience got the better of me, because when I picked it up, I felt I should look up the scripture.
“And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.”
No contention. No disharmony. That sounded fair enough; then, as I kept reading, the last part of verse 17 really stood out. [4 Ne. 1:17]
“… neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.”
Nor any manner of -ites. No -ites among us? Did that mean there were no different cultural groups or that they “were in one, the children of Christ.” In one? As in unity?
I was actually sitting back on my bed pondering the scripture when Mum tapped on the door.
“Any inspiration yet?” She gave my scriptures a quick glance.
“I’m not sure, maybe.”
“Don’t forget to look close to home or church.” She smiled and blew me a kiss goodnight.
Next morning when I arrived early at seminary, my teacher, Sister Fisher, was already there with some of the Korean students. I hadn’t really noticed before that they were always there early. Today I watched quietly and found that Sister Fisher was teaching them the main words and ideas from the lesson in English so they could understand better during class.
Later on in class, I noticed other things for the first time. Out of 20 students we had nine different nationalities—French, Maori, Filipino, Korean, South African, Chinese, Niuean, Tongan, and Samoan.
I watched a girl from South Africa helping a Korean boy read aloud. A Filipino boy was helping a Chinese boy three years younger with scripture mastery, and a Maori girl was helping a Niuean boy. Everyone was helping everyone else to learn about Jesus Christ, and “there was no contention in the land.”
When I got home I wrote a few observations about seminary into the notebook. As I stopped to think for a bit, I noticed Mum had put a photo on my dresser. It’s one of her favorites of my older brother on his mission in Australia. He is with two little Aboriginal children and their mum, whom he was teaching the gospel to.
I made more notes as the week went on.
—The visit of the stake Young Men presidency—three men from three different cultures encouraging us all to serve missions.
—The regional basketball team—12 players from five cultures, all united in a team effort to win the championship.
—Our stake service project—youth from 10 cultures helping clear roadside rubbish.
—A ward fireside with 38 people and 14 cultures, listening to advice from the scriptures on how to build stronger families.
And at every activity, there was no contention. We were just Latter-day Saints worshipping and working together. I couldn’t see any -ites at all.
“How’s the assignment going?” Mum asked one morning. Mum and I do most of our talking in the kitchen on either side of the breakfast bar. I juggled a handful of cookies and pulled the red notebook out of my jeans pocket. It was looking pretty ragged, and I could tell Mum was impressed when I flipped through my pages of notes.
“Plenty examples of racial harmony—no contention and ‘no -ites among us.’” I started to say it in an almost glib, gloating way until my throat suddenly tightened, and I got the most amazing feeling in my chest and behind my eyes all at once. I couldn’t even look at Mum. I just kept staring at my little red book until the scripture on the front blurred.
“Do you think you understand your assignment now?” Mum asked quietly.
When I handed my assignment to Miss Lambert, she looked briefly at the number of pages and raised one eyebrow slightly higher than the other.
“You’ve been working hard, Matt.” It was a statement rather than a question. “Do you think you’ve learned something from it all?”
“Plenty, Miss Lambert,” I grinned. “It wasn’t as boring as I thought it would be.”
“And did you decide how we could make things better?”
“Uh, yeah.” I felt a bit awkward. “I think it’s got a lot to do with having a common goal.”
The eyebrow went up again.
“I mean, if we’re working together and helping each other reach the same goal—well, there’s less room for contention, and people are more unified.” I felt myself trailing off, but Miss Lambert smiled and nodded.
“You’ve done well, Matt. You’ve seen that you can make a difference.”
As she turned away to gather up the other assignments, I found myself silently reciting the scripture that I had memorized in the last two weeks.
“Neither were there … any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ.”
“Did you get the assignment done okay, Matt?” Wendy bubbled up beside me. “Wasn’t it awesome?”
I couldn’t believe my answer as I smiled back. “Yeah, Wendy, it was awesome.”
And I meant it.