So. You’ve been asked by the Bishop to teach the Primary class filled with 10 & 11 year old boys and girls. The mind races for excuses but fails to come up with a good enough one to state to the man so earnestly looking for someone to teach, coax to sit still, prod to sing, shush, and be with the children for two hours.
Actually, you are about to embark on one of the most amusing tasks you’ll face. These are not 10 & 11 year old children, but stand up comics without attitudes. They’re eager kids about as guileless as mankind comes.
Take one five year old. The Primary President welcomed the boys and girls and exclaimed that in looking around she could see we had no visitors to welcome today. She also noted that they couldn’t sing Happy Birthday to anyone because everyone who had a birthday that month had already been sung to and so she said, “we have no more birthdays.” A puzzled look came over a number of the five and six year olds as they thought about the abolition of birthdays. But undeterred, five year old Ethan shot up his hand. “Yes, Ethan.” He stood and set her straight with one finger in the air, “I have one more birthday left, but not until next year.” Ah, the hope of humanity that there will be a next year.
I’ve Had Stranger Assignments
I’ve had stranger assignments. Teaching the men in the High Priest Quorum, for starters. Trying to keep a 10 year old from talking is nothing compared to the High Priests of one quorum I taught. The way to start a discussion in High Priests is to clear your throat and ask for comments. Before you know it the time for the closing prayer is at hand.
In other quorums it’s not so easy. One teacher fretted over whether he had anything worthwhile to say. The group leader simply asked, “What makes you think they’re listening to you?” I’ve heard the urban legend that in one quorum a man had a heart attack and the ambulance workers revived six High Priests before they found the one they’d been called to serve.
So Primary is a 180 from teaching High Priests, although one day I was asked to teach the High Priests about five minutes after finishing my lesson to the 11 year olds. I thought I had made the transition nicely until someone asked me why I kept saying “shsssh” after every few sentences. Habits are hard to break.
But Primary is two hours of laughter for me with a few moments of glaring clarity imparted to a particularly rowdy young boy or a couple of non-stop talking girls.
Remember These are Kids
One cannot take on a Primary assignment without remembering a clear point. These are kids. They are brain dead and don’t know it. They don’t take themselves seriously and have little pride and their teacher can’t take them too seriously either.
Boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Rarely does a Primary class go by without some boy saying something silly or obnoxious and laughing till his sides hurt. And the girls are just as bad (or good) and glare down the boys. One 11 year old girl was so disgusted with the boys she stood up, put her fists on her hips and said, “You boys are just so immature!” Now, how am I supposed to give a lesson and suppress my laughter after that.
There’s the usual boy that comes late and the only empty seat is next to a girl. Instinctively he screws up his face trying to figure out what to do. I motion for him to sit there and he does, but creates the largest distance between himself and the girl. He looks up at me and asks me to tell the girl, “not to touch me.” As it turns out the girl is his sister making it all the more understandable.
Don’t Expect Subtlety
Don’t expect subtlety from the kids. Whatever they think just comes tumbling out. Each year the children are asked to put on a program for church. On the Saturday before one such performance we met in the chapel to rehearse. The Primary presidency had taped each child and adult’s name on their assigned seats in the choir chairs behind the Bishop’s seat. The tape lasted about five seconds, usually ending up in the girl’s hair ahead of them or on the forehead of a boy. We proceeded to have the kids walk in turn to the podium to give their spoken parts and then the other children stood and sang their songs.
I did fine on most of the songs, but one I’d never learned and stumbled through the words, proud of myself for making the effort and showing the kids that even if you don’t know all the words you must still make an effort. I was a good example. When we sat down the 10 year old to my left tugged on my coat, wanting to tell me something. Probably say what a good example I was. When I leaned to hear what this freckled face little red-headed girl had to say she said, “Don’t you ever listen in Primary?” Yep, she had heard and seen my example but was not impressed with my learning skills.
These kids see, feel and say. One little 6 year old with a precocious nature had been getting up and down, up and down, and up and down. His teacher picked him up and had him sit on his lap. This fellow didn’t have much of a lap because he had a rather large stomach. This did not go unnoticed by the boy. He wanted more room on the man’s knee, so he turned, and with both hands pushed the girth back to make room. The man patiently let the boy push or else simply didn’t notice this mosquito thumping against the elephant. Finally the boy could take it no more. “How come your stomach sticks out all the way out here?” he asked in his rather loud voice.
Just Tell Them Stories
Getting kids involved is not a problem. Just tell them stories. Keeping them involved, however, is another task. Try to make a subtle point and you’ll lose them. Their attention spans are roughly the length of a cat’s whisker. But, tell a good story, and they’ll likely get into it and stay with you.
The lesson was to be on David’s life after Goliath. I knew the story well and proceeded to dramatically tell of David’s fights with Saul, dodging the javelin, having a good time with Jonathan and falling in love with Mikael. I described the region where David fled after Saul tried again to kill him, having been to the area. They liked that. I told other stories of David and how once he was king he tried to get his childhood sweetheart back only to find she’d become happy in the forced marriage Saul had inflicted on her. One 11 year old girl started to weep and said, “This is such a sad story.”
I then juiced it up with David’s successes and then told of one evening on the roof top of Jerusalem and how he’d seen Bathsheba bathing. Their eyes got big as it began to occur to them what was happening. When I finally broke the news that David had improper relations with a married woman, one 11 year old whose mouth had been open listening to the great life and stories of David was last to get the infidelity of David. As it dawned on him what David had done, he shook his head and then put both hands on top of his head as if to hold it together. “You mean he… Oh no. Oh David, David, David, how could you do something so stupid!” Again, how could I finish the lesson!
Now in the Pentacostal faiths, they express themselves with great ardor, but in the LDS faith we’re a bit more reserved. To overcome that sometimes I try to give the kids a bit more information as well as faith promoting stories. On this Sunday I went through all of the logic of ordination, of the apostle’s special mission as witnesses, and their great faith. I told them stories of faith and how we needed to have that faith and truly become disciples to which one petite 11 year old girl jumped to her feet and thrust her arm straight up and shouted, “I believe.” With wide eyes I thanked her and asked her to give the closing prayer. I was laughing inside, but dared not show it for all the other 11 year olds were just fine with her great leaping faith.
Be Careful What You Say
Be careful what you say to these kids. It will come back and bite you. I have a bad habit of cracking jokes anywhere and everywhere. I think I got that from my mother. She loved puns and would poke me in the ribs while listening to a speaker and start to laugh. She’d whisper, “Did you get the pun?” I’ve even heard her snicker while someone was giving a prayer and made a pun – unintentional though it may have been. But, with 9, 10, and 11 year olds around, it is best to keep your humor to yourself.
One Sunday the Primary leader talked to the kids about the program they were going to put on for the parents in Sacrament Meeting. Trying to make an earnest point, she asked the children, “What is our goal – what are we trying to achieve?” Everyone looked up at her with blank stares. She then said, “How will we know when we’ve succeeded? What are we trying to do? ” I whispered under my breath, “To make our mother’s cry.” Immediately young Mitch shot his hand up, to which the leader asked, “Okay, Mitch, what are we trying to do?” He proudly stood and stated, “To make our mother’s cry!” The leader smiled and then looked at me. I grimaced and wished to find a five foot hole. Fortunately, this leader had worked with kids long enough to never let them see you sweat. She just smiled and said, “Exactly, Mitch. When your mothers cry it will be because they’ve been touched by your sweetness and spirits.” Whew. Nice recovery.
The Ten Commandments
One leader didn’t recover quite as well when she was teaching all 75 kids about the 10 Commandments and how Moses had come down with the tablets. She asked, “Now, boys and girls, can anyone tell us one of the 10 Commandments?” One 8 year old boy’s hand shot up. She saw it, but tried to avoid him. He loved to talk and she wanted to get others involved. But no other hands were raised. Alex kept shoving his hand up. He waved it so much his arm got tired so he used his other arm to hold up the waving hand. Finally, the leader gave in and said, “Okay, Alex, can you tell us one of the 10 Commandments?”
“Yes,” he said proudly. “Four!” he proclaimed.
The leader was stunned and didn’t know what to make of it. “Four?”
“Yes,” he said again proud that he’d answered correctly. “Four.”
I was nearly lying on the floor trying to keep the laughter quite, for not only did I think that was funny, but it was even funnier to see the other children nodding in agreement with Alex that Four was one of the 10 Commandments.
The leader looked at Alex to see if he was putting her on. But these kids aren’t good at that. They just say what they think.
“Okay, Alex, can you tell me what the 4th Commandment says?”
He looked confused, but not at the question, but confused to know why the leader would want to know that. He shook his head and said, “No. Of course not.”
Ahh, Primary. Where innocence meets reality, and innocence wins every time.