Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
“Brother Boots, we’d like to extend you a call to serve in the Primary, specifically to work with the Sunbeams.”
I swallowed hard. I’m certain a bit of color drained from my face.
“I’ll do it, but I don’t know how successful I’ll be. The last time I taught Primary, it didn’t go very well.”
The good bishop smiled. “I understand. It can be challenging. We prayed about it, and it was very clear to us that you needed to be with the Sunbeams. Also, you won’t be alone – you’ll have a co-teacher. Talk to the Primary president. She’ll have your manual and help set you up with everything you need.”
In the LDS faith, Sunday services are three hours in length. One hour, usually the first in the block, is sacrament meeting, similar to Catholic mass in which members receive the sacrament and listen to sermons. The other two hours are divided up into a variety of meetings and classes which vary depending on age and gender: Sunday school, Relief Society for the sisters, priesthood meetings for the teenage and adult brethren. For children age 12 and under, there’s Primary. The very youngest children, three years old turning four, go to Sunbeams. They’re fresh out of the nursery, which they started attending as 18-month-old toddlers. Sunbeams is the very first formal church class they’ve ever attended.
Ecclesiastical responsibilities in the LDS faith such as teaching or leadership aren’t paid ministry positions – members are approached and asked to accept “callings,” to fulfill particular assignments. In my case, I have a fairly extensive teaching background in the Church. Besides a two-year mission, I’ve taught Sunday school classes, priesthood lessons and missionary preparation classes of various stripes, and delivered public sermons in two languages. Where my Church service is concerned, my lot has for the most part been in front of a class, which is just fine by me.
But Sunbeams? I’d worked with teenagers, with some degree of success, but it always appeared to me that my effectiveness as a teacher had some direct correlation with the age of my students. I had taught a Primary class about a decade before, but my memories of that experience remain decidedly negative; I didn’t feel that I had really made an impact on the kids. And as I don’t have children of my own, my direct experience with preschoolers bordered on the nonexistent. However, I have a personal policy in place that, barring some logistical barrier, I don’t turn down callings (here’s hoping my bishop never reads this).
So, starting last April, I became the newest Sunbeam teacher in my ward’s Primary.
My saving grace on the front end was Brother Jones1, my co-teacher and father of Ellie. He had already spent some time as Sunbeam teacher and so knew the kids very well, making it easy enough to follow his lead. And Ellie was just exceptional: she could always be counted upon to be very attentive and reverent. Same with fraternal twins Autumn and Cara. Actually, “reverent” doesn’t quite cover it – the twins simply didn’t talk, at all. I called them the “Mormon nuns,” as they seemed to be in a convent and had taken a vow of silence. But they were obedient and quiet, so I counted my blessings.
Especially when considering Clark, the cherubic little hand grenade on the other end of the scale. I quickly grew to see Clark as nothing more or less than an exceedingly willful three-year-old, continually disruptive, disobedient and unwilling or unable to behave. Example: at first, our class met in a room containing a computer cabinet. Obviously inopportune, given the clear temptation to monkey with the contents therein. Sure enough, within seconds of arriving at class on our first Sunday, Clark tried to open the door to the cabinet. I closed it, saying, “Come on, Clark, let’s sit down.”
I turned away for just a second, and then turned right back around to the cabinet. In the second I had turned away, Clark had immediately reached up again to try to open the cabinet. He froze, his hand just touching the doorknob.
He looked up at me. I looked down at him. We remained statuesque, our gazes locked on one another for a few seconds.
Finally, ever so slowly, he withdrew his hand and returned to his seat. As I would soon learn, I hadn’t achieved a victory in our battle of wills so much as a truce, but with Clark, that’s about all I could realistically expect.
Karen, at least early on, sat somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. She participated and engaged in ways that the twins wouldn’t, but wasn’t continually disruptive a la Clark.
Paul and Jason completed our little company. I quickly found that Jason was Clark’s sidekick: if Clark was there to prod him, Jason was only too happy to follow his lead. (Needless to say, I tended to exercise some faith that one would be absent if the other were present.) Paul was generally earnest and attentive. The problem was bringing him willingly to the third hour class; his mother, a member of the Primary presidency, was present for junior Primary, the second hour group meeting. Paul would literally cling to her, physically follow her around the room for the entire hour, and when it was time to leave for class, the tears started rolling.
But when it came to clinging to a parent or pitching a fit, he didn’t hold a candle to Clark. One parent or the other – usually his mother – did his or her level best to merely drop him off peacefully. This almost never worked. He demanded they stay, insisted they sit next to him or that he sit on their lap, and would scream hysterically – “No – you can’t leave – NO” – if he saw them leave. They did their best to slip out of a side door without him watching; sometimes they succeeded, sometimes not. Sometimes they just couldn’t enter the room without a tantrum, so they didn’t, instead wandering the halls with him during the Primary classes.
Starting out, I followed wise counsel from my wife: “Get down on their level to talk to them.” It seemed to me that the best approach was to make the class as fun as possible. So at the beginning of the second hour, I made a point to greet them enthusiastically: crouch down, look them in the eye, give them a great big smile, shake hands or high five. Reactions were generally positive: Ellie and Karen usually responded in kind, Clark was halfhearted at best, the twins declined to look me in the eye and generally just pretended I wasn’t there.
I also found that singing helped. As I suspect is the case with children’s classes in other faiths, there’s plenty of music. If I sang along, the kids tended to do likewise, which of course was immensely helpful to redirect them.
But second hour was a piece of cake compared to the third hour. As I say, I started out just following Bro. Jones’s lead when it came to class time. He kept it very basic: brief lesson, maybe a treat or two (Goldfish, natch) and crayons. However, I found that teaching three-year-olds stretched my teaching abilities in a humbling way. Whatever teaching experience I may have had almost didn’t count; nearly every tried-and-true tactic I had come to depend upon just didn’t fly with Sunbeams. Asking class members to read scriptures or quotes from general conference, or to share personal testimony or experiences? It was like starting over, rethinking what really worked. Just trying to get the timing right in terms of lesson length was a struggle – and woe unto me if I ran out of material with ten minutes left.
I received some incentive to get proficient at my new calling: a few weeks after I had started, I learned Bro. Jones had been called into the elders quorum presidency. I would have a few more weeks to get situated, and then he would be replaced, likely with another rookie. If I was going to get good at this, I had better figure it out fast.
Another rookie did take Bro. Jones’s place. Thankfully, it was Bro. Anderson, Jason’s father, so keeping a handle on Jason became a good deal easier.
Gradually, through trial and error, I did discover some things that helped, particularly after I took more of the lead in class:
- Start with music. Sure, we’d just had singing time in second hour, but who cares? I brought a small stereo and CDs of all the Primary music, and we’d sing a few songs.
- Establish some very basic rules. I set up just two, in this order: “Sunbeams are reverent” and “Sunbeams are happy.” And I had the kids demonstrate both: happiness with big smiles, reverence with arms folded and mouths silent.
- Adhere to a schedule as much as possible. Always start with a prayer, sing the same two or three songs at the beginning. And always swing by the restroom on the way to class: a good way to eat up a few minutes and avoid the disruption of a midclass potty break.
- Lots and lots of praise for doing what I asked, followed up with plenty of encouragement and compliments.
That’s nice for classroom management and all. But what about trying to achieve some semblance of gospel instruction with preschoolers? The following is representative of the sort of exchange I experienced:
Me: “Heavenly Father gave us trees! What can we do with trees?”
Paul: “When…when I’m outside with my mommy, we – we go to the park, and we play, and I can go on the merry-go-round!”
Me: (pause) “That’s right! Do we like trees? We like trees, don’t we! What can we do with trees? We can climb them, right? And we can use them to make things?”
Karen: “I don’t like trees. They make leaves that fall on the ground, and get all yucky.”
And so on. Yet we persevered, non sequiturs and all.
Gradually, I picked up the occasional tip and trick. When prepping a lesson, I very quickly learned what my predecessor had told me was absolutely true: Sugardoodle is awesome. That site was a lifesaver on more than a few occasions.
Here’s the fundamental thing I finally realized, after several lessons: a successful Sunbeam lesson is no less than 50% theatrical entertainment. I was putting on a show as much as teaching a lesson. In fact, it was theatrical with a heavy dose of improv. Consider:
- For lesson 22, “I Can Do Many Things” (yes, the lessons are just about as basic as can be), we talked about playing games. So on a whim I drew different sports on the chalkboard – baseball, soccer, basketball. I realized later that the kids – even Clark – were quiet and sat in their seats as they watched. I won’t say they were mesmerized, but they were watching attentively.
- When we covered Noah and the ark, I did the same thing, drawing the ark and animals on the board. This is where Karen’s sassy side definitely came out. “Make the giraffe taller.” “Give him a smiley face.” “That doesn’t look like a bird!”
- When we taught about animals, I pretended to be different animals – a turtle, an elephant, a monkey. Yes, I suppose one loses certain inhibitions teaching Sunbeams.
There were occasions when improvisation definitely came in handy. Clark was in the habit of bringing some sort of small toy with him to class. I would have preferred if he didn’t, but it was almost always small enough to keep in his shirt pocket – usually a Matchbox car – and he generally kept it to himself. For the lesson including the Book of Mormon story of the Liahona, I had planned out a whole activity where the kids would help “build” a ship (banging on a table with their fists to help hammer it together), after which we would “sail to the promised land” (me standing on a chair waving a tablecloth for a sail).
Then I noticed at the beginning of class that Clark’s toy for the day just happened to be a toy compass.
Now this was an opportunity to really involve him in the lesson. We built the ship, set sail, and then – “Okay, Clark, which way? To the east, right? Okay, here we go! And now, to the west – right? Okay, to the west!” Soon he cottoned on, reading his compass, directing our ship.
On another occasion, it came time for the closing prayer. The twins volunteered simultaneously. Both of them wanted to give it. Well, far be it from me to disappoint. So I brought both of them to the front of the room, one on my right and the other on my left, and in true Sunbeam tradition proceeded to help them with the prayer:
“Dear Heavenly Father…” to the twin on my right.
“we thank thee for this day…” on my left.
“and our many blessings…” on my right.
And so forth. Hardly conventional, but hey, the prayer was given.
I definitely exercised a bit of my own faith during every opening prayer, and gave thanks during every closing prayer. And over time, I detected a pattern. Every Sunday, I was glad class was over. And every Sunday, I already looked forward to the next class.
As the weeks and months passed, we all gradually came to know one another better. And as this happened, the nature of our relationships, and their behavior, changed as well.
Take Karen. At first I saw her as Goldilocks – engaging and responsive in class without being disruptive. But over time she turned sassy, then more or less perpetually cranky. I think most of it was attention seeking, and maybe some frustration bleeding over from home; Mom gave birth to twins of her own2 partway through the year, so I imagine she was feeling a bit side-shuffled.
As Karen changed toward us, so did Cara and Autumn: specifically, their vow of silence came to a rather abrupt end. Suddenly, they warmed towards us, were willing to talk and smile. And, like Karen, they copped attitude at times, especially Autumn. Problem was, you couldn’t say anything to her without her playing the parent card: she would put her arms over her face, poke her lip out, and threaten to cry: “I want my daddy!” Oh, brother.
Another bit of improv helped me figure out how to resolve Paul’s separation anxiety. One afternoon I was talking to Paul’s mother about the situation, discussing what might be done to best help him, when I had an idea: “How about if we make Paul the…um…official bringer of the chalk?” I tended to be pretty bad about remembering to bring chalk myself, so maybe Paul could both help me and have some incentive to go to class?
It worked. Mom and Dad prepped him ahead of time, impressed upon him that Brother Boots was counting on him to bring the chalk, and afterwards, he always came to class willingly, even happily, chalk in hand. And it was helpful – I quickly became accustomed to him bringing the chalk, to the point that if he was absent, I had to scramble to find some.
Clark? I can’t say he ever really came to like Sunbeams, or Primary generally. I’m quite certain he never cared for me. But he gradually learned one fundamental lesson: Brother Boots, if pushed, plays hardball. One Sunday I was in the hallway before second hour when he and his mom rounded the corner, Clark gripping a large toy that it turned out he had swiped from the nursery. I watched as Mom opened the door to the nursery, explained to the adult leader what had happened, and asked Clark to give the toy to the leader. Nothing doing: Clark refused to relinquish his ill-gotten treasure. Finally Mom pulled it out of his hands and gave it to the nursery leader. As the nursery leader closed the door, Clark was clearly incensed at this injustice…
…so much so that he reached back and slapped Mom on the hand. Twice.
I crouched down and looked him squarely in the eye, furious. He rolled his eyes upward and to the side to avoid looking at me. No chance, pal: I kept staring him down, refusing to budge. Seconds passed. Gradually, he brought his eyes around and looked at me.
“You don’t hit your own mommy, and you definitely don’t hit your mommy at church.”
His expression hovered somewhere between mutiny and indifference.
“I want you in Sunbeams, but I want you there good, and reverent. Understand?”
Gradually, he came to learn that, regardless of how he may have been accustomed to behaving elsewhere, he simply couldn’t do as he pleased in my presence. One day during third hour, when Bro. Anderson was teaching the lesson, he refused to behave if my attention was even minimally diverted elsewhere. Well, then: if it was a battle he wanted, I decided, why not oblige him? So I made a point of giving him the steely stare nonstop. After a few minutes of this, he finally gave up and sat quietly. Maybe he didn’t participate, maybe he wasn’t truly reverent, but at least he was no longer disruptive.
Overbearing? Possibly, but I don’t think so. Un-Christlike? I desperately hope not.
Over time, I began to experience a new facet in my relationship with the Sunbeams. One Sunday afternoon, while visiting with a friend from church, the doorbell rang. My wife answered.
“Well, thank you so much!” she said, her voice clearly very pleased. “Hang on just a second…Ryan?”
I went to the front door. Standing on our porch next to their smiling mother were the Mormon nuns. One held a paper plate of cookies in a Ziploc bag. Three drawings were in a neat stack on top. Both stared at the ground, not daring to look up, bracing for impact, almost begging me in deed if not in word: take them – just take them – please, we just want this over with. 3
Later in the year, a few more sterling pieces of preschool artwork made their way to me. They joined my growing collection on my cubicle wall at work. (Occasionally coworkers asked, “Ryan, who did the drawings?” “Why, I did. How come?”)
After months of rumors, it became official in November. Due to membership growth in the area, local church leaders were taking territory from our ward and the one adjacent to create a third. The new boundaries meant some shuffling of members, and my wife and I were among those moved elsewhere. I had one last Sunday with the Sunbeams.
I was more than a bit worried about the transition to a new teacher. I knew it would be pretty abrupt for the kids, and I knew there was no easy way to explain it to them. Thankfully, there were no tears. In fact, I wasn’t sure they really understood that they would be getting a new teacher next Sunday. We sang our songs, had our lesson, the kids gave the typical non sequitur questions and observations, the closing prayer was given, and that was that.
Except it wasn’t. Two weeks later, my replacement, a fellow brother in the ward with no children, approached me. “Can you tell me some of the stuff you did with the Sunbeams? They keep asking for you.” No problem, brother. I sat down with him for about half an hour and shared with him what I had learned. And I agreed to come to class the following Sunday to visit briefly with the children.
As soon as I entered the classroom, eyes lit up. “I know you!” exclaimed Autumn. I crouched down, high fives and handshakes all around, and then we talked – reminded them that I was in the other ward now, that they now had a new teacher, that they needed to be good for him the way they had been good for me. And we reviewed the two rules.:
“And Sunbeams are…”
“Show me reverent!”
And they demonstrated admirably: arms folded, bright smiles. And notice the reversal in the rules. It crept in by itself, over time. Because Sunbeams are, first and foremost, happy.
In the new ward, I spent one Sunday back in my previous routine, attending adult Sunday School and priesthood classes. And after spending that one Sunday bored out of my skull, I began to silently hope for another calling to teach. It didn’t take long. The following Sunday, I was called back into Primary, this time to work with the Valiants. Ten-year-olds turning eleven.
The following Sunday, my first in the new Primary, I walked into the Primary room to find a group of sisters setting things up. A stack of smaller chairs sat in a corner. “Can you take these to the Sunbeams?”
In the classroom were five or six Sunbeams, along with their sister teacher. I set down the chairs, crouched down, and gave them a big smile and high fives. “How are you?” I asked, enthusiastically. “It’s so good to see you!”
One little boy didn’t respond, but just looked at me, sizing me up. Gradually, he grinned.
1. All names have been changed.
2. Yes, we live in a ridiculously fertile ward. As always, we’re the outliers.
3. I asked their mother on a few occasions, and she swears: “No, I didn’t put them up to it. Every Sunday we make cookies for somebody and they decide who to give them to. And they said, ‘We want to bring cookies to Brother Boots!'”