This morning I am thrilled to share a guest post written by my amazing mother, Christie Frandsen. Christie is a gifted teacher, leader and speaker, and has taught early morning seminary, Institute, and adult scripture classes for many years in Southern California. She has also been involved in Girl Scouting for decades in many significant leadership capacities. She is the mother of eleven children and grandmother of eighteen.
It’s 4:25 in the morning. I wake up with a start, instinctively look at the clock and see that I have 5 more minutes of blessed sleep before the alarm rings. I turn it off before it disturbs my husband, and close my eyes for those precious few minutes before my day begins. I recite Scripture Mastery verses in my mind to make sure I still have them memorized, or mentally go over my lesson plan one last time, silently praying to know if anything needs to be changed. My best lesson ideas come at 4:25 in the morning. Once a week I am up even earlier to make biscuits or oatmeal cookies for my students. I picture them sleeping in their beds, dreading the sound of their alarms, doing their best to drag themselves out of bed and get to seminary – I pray that what I have waiting for them will be worth their sacrifice.
I leave my house by 5:30. Most of the year it is dark and cold, many mornings I am the only one on the street – me and the coyotes and roaming bands of raccoons. The Church is dark and silent when I arrive – at least I hope it is! Once I found a vagrant sleeping on the steps in front of the door. Sometimes doors and windows are left open and lights left on from Mutual the night before. I sometimes feel nervous but never scared. I know that God protects His early morning seminary teachers.
I love my routine as I get the classroom ready for my students – I love the smell of the hallway, the warmth of the meetinghouse library, the feel of the chalk against the board, the sound of the MoTab CD that brings the spirit into my classroom. But especially I love the sound of the back door opening, and the beautiful sound of the beautiful feet of my faithful seminary kids coming to class, no matter how little sleep they got, no matter how much homework has yet to be completed, no matter how boring the lesson might have been the day before. They come tired, yes, but also hungry and thirsty for the bread of life, desperately needing spiritual armor to protect them from the fiery darts they will face that day, hoping to feel the spirit in the lesson. Every morning without fail that is mentioned in the opening prayer, right next to “please help us on any tests, quizzes, or projects we may have today.” I know that some are also praying privately and fervently for answers as they face critical decisions that will change their lives forever. I am intensely aware that I might be the conduit for the revelation they seek as I welcome each student with a hug, say one last silent prayer, then begin class. And this is how it was for me for 2912 mornings.
I have been an early morning seminary teacher for 16 years, longer than most of my current students have been alive! My youngest daughter, now a returned missionary, was only 5 when I started, I had only 1 married child, no grandchildren yet, and I could still read my beloved compact edition of the scriptures. It’s now a different century, a different millennium, and in many ways an entirely different world. Except for being a wife and a mother, teaching seminary has been the hardest and best thing I have ever done. I could write a book on my experiences in those early morning hours with a room full of half-asleep teenagers – and maybe someday I will. But for now, here are few things my students taught me while I was trying to teach them the gospel of Jesus Christ:
1. Appearances can be deceiving
In my first year of teaching, I had the running back of the high school football team in my class, a charismatic young man of Polynesian descent. His attendance was not stellar, but he made a covenant with God that he would go to seminary every game day (wearing his lava-lava) in exchange for God’s help during the game. He was true to his word, but the moment he sat down, his head was on his desk, never to rise again until the “Amen” of the closing prayer. One day I called on him to answer a question, though I knew he was sound asleep. Without missing a beat, he gave a brilliant answer, to my amazement. I tested him frequently after that, and each time he responded correctly, never once lifting his head. Just because eyes are closed and heads are down that does not necessarily mean nothing is getting into minds or hearts. But likewise, just because heads are up and eyes wide open, I cannot assume students are learning. I had another student who never missed a day of the 2 years he was in my class, one of the first to arrive, attentive every minute of every class. The night he graduated, he took the school keys from his custodian father, stole all the computers from the high school, and took them to a nearby pawn shop for drug money. I was devastated – 364 days in my class, 333 hours of my instruction, and nothing sank in.
2. Dogs are more reverent than some kids
One of my students brought her poodle Amelia to seminary every morning for the 2 years she was in my class. I was quite taken aback that first morning, concerned about the potential for disaster. But Amelia was reverent and attentive every day, never once a distraction and never once fell asleep, unlike most of my human students.
3. Teenage kids are the best antidote to a teacher’s pride
In addition to seminary, I teach Institute classes at USC and Occidental College and 2 adult religion classes each week, filled with students who tell me regularly how they love my classes and what a great teacher I am. For one who suffers chronic insecurity, this is balm to my soul. But lest I ever begin to think I actually am a great teacher, God blessed me with my seminary calling. If ever one is inclined to take pride in one’s abilities, just teach seminary! I had students who would rather sleep in a cold car in the church parking lot or on a hard classroom floor than come into my class. I had students who delighted in catching my mistakes and correcting me in front of the whole class. Every day I was humbled to the depths and reminded that I am nothing without God’s help. And even with His help, this is the hardest teaching job in the world.
4. Sometimes my best teaching happens years later
Like time release capsules of medication, much of the good that comes to my students comes long after leaving my classroom, at college or on missions. I have treasured letters from former students serving missions, thanking me for things they learned in my class which they now truly understand for the first time. Some write begging forgiveness for not paying attention in class or for claiming they did their daily scripture reading when they hadn’t. I regularly receive emails from students thanking me for that A on their Book of Mormon test because of things I urged them to write in the margins of their scriptures. And recently I am hearing from former students who have been called as seminary teachers. Teaching seminary is like planting an orchard that might not bear fruit for years – but what a sweet harvest when it comes!
5. Life is harder now than it was 16 years ago
I have witnessed a sea change in teenage culture with assaults on personal and national security, the upheaval of moral norms, and the advent of social media. The level of stress and anxiety in the lives of our young people increases noticeably every year. What was once adequate spiritual preparation for my seminary students is no longer sufficient to get them safely through the rocky shoals of high school. It’s as if 16 years ago we were on the wide sandy beaches of Southern California – there were rough and dangerous waves in sight, but there was also a broad margin of safety for young people who were prone wander. It was possible for them to have a foot in the treacherous sea and a foot on the safe shore without risking disaster. Now we are on the perilous cliffs of Northern California, where one misstep can lead to tragedy and there is no margin of safety where young people can try dipping their toes in the ways of the world just a bit. At a much earlier age, our children must commit to standing steadfast and immovable in the kingdom of God or risk being pulled under by swift currents which will quickly carry them far away.
6. One bad apple can spoil a barrel or a class, but one good apple can rescue a class
I was blessed every year with mostly good students. But some were better than others and it took only a few days into each school year before I could identify my “good apples” and my “bad apples.” A critical, sarcastic attitude spreads like wildfire throughout a classroom, but so does a happy, supportive attitude. One person can make or break a seminary class and it’s not the teacher who has the most power! How I loved those students who would always give an insightful answer even to a poorly worded question, or take the lead in making an activity fun and successful. Some of those “good apples” did more than rescue the class – they rescued me as well. This past year was particularly discouraging when attendance plummeted in the bleak mid-winter, as it always does, but then stayed down longer than usual. Day after day I began class with only 2 or 3 students present, others straggling in late, many seats remaining empty. I managed to hide my discouragement from most of the class, but there was one very special “good apple” who noticed and would tell me quietly every morning “Next year will be better, Sister Frandsen – I just know it will!” There is a special place in heaven for students like him.
7. Feuds implode class unity and so does romance
I experienced both feuding and romance during my years, and honestly, I think romance is worse. You cannot teach a room full of teenagers without having an occasional personality clash, even an explosion or two. I dealt with those by strategic separation and one-on-one chats after class. The conflicts seldom affected the entire class. Romance, on the other hand, was far more distracting and damaging to a spiritual, harmonious classroom. Thankfully, I only had one romantic relationship that lasted more than a few days, but it drove the rest of us almost crazy trying to keep the two lovebirds focused on the scriptures and not on each other. It can be a challenge to keep teenage hormones from hijacking the spirit. And one thing is for sure, without the spirit, nothing good happens in a seminary class.
8. The spirit makes some kids feel wonderful and other kids feel extremely uncomfortable
Every seminary teacher, every day, has just one goal: to help the students feel the spirit. The spirit is the real teacher in every classroom, the only means by which truth can really be understood and hearts truly changed. Sadly, I soon discovered that not all my students, especially my boys, wanted to feel the spirit every morning. Just when I felt that gentle presence enter the room, inevitably one of the boys would start twirling a hymnbook on his
fingertips, or making strange sound effects to accompany the video or scripture passage, doing anything he could to sabotage the spirit, and he was always successful. Some would immediately put their heads on their desks to protect themselves from the “two-edged sword” of the spirit. The spirit makes us feel warm and happy, but also vulnerable and exposed, and that is a scary, unsettling experience, especially at 6:00 in the morning, especially for tough, cool young men.
9. Lessons were never as good, or as bad, as I thought they were
Some days I started class excited about the great lesson I had planned, only to have it fall flat from the first moment. I would go home and cry for the next hour, absolutely sure that was the biggest disaster in seminary history. But sure enough, on those disastrous days, I would get a note from one of my students (usually a girl) thanking me for saying something she needed to hear that very day. Other times when I felt the lesson went particularly well, I inevitably heard variations of this conversation between a student and parent: “How did seminary go today? Anything special happen?” “It was just SEMINARY, Mom! There’s nothing special about seminary!” [Eyes roll] Sigh…
10. Nevertheless, don’t be afraid to have high expectations!
Teenagers usually do about what is expected of them, that has been my experience. So if I keep my expectations low, so as to protect my heart and ego, I get very little in return. But if I can risk being disappointed, and challenge my students with high expectations, miracles sometimes happen. One year I called a girl to be my class president who had come to seminary only a handful of times the year before. She rose to the occasion and became one of my most dedicated students. Another year I called a shy girl to be my class president, who felt socially ostracized by her classmates. She hesitantly accepted the call and I watched her blossom into a great and beloved leader. A couple of years into my teaching I became aware that my class was being referred to throughout the Stake as “the AP Seminary Class” – I could not have been more pleased! My students are expected to invite non-member friends to our quarterly Bring A Friend Days. My seniors are expected to give a Senior Report at the end of the year. I expect my students to be respectful to me and to each other in class. Do all of my students rise to my high expectations? No. I have had my heart broken more than once. But far more often I have been astonished at what these students can do.
In my 16 years of teaching seminary, I have learned that it’s harder to teach teenagers than anyone else, WAY harder than USC students or adults. I became a much better teacher each year – each year I was sure that next year would finally be that elusive perfect year!
I never did have a perfect year or even a perfect lesson. Nevertheless, I discovered a new law of nature: The Synergy of Seminary – the total effect always exceeds the sum of each day.
And that effect has multiplied and spread over the years as I have sent nearly 150 students from my class on missions all over the world. But I also see the faces of the ones who have left the Church and will never stop praying for them to get back into the boat. Each student has a permanent place in my heart.
I have poured myself into this calling and have received “an hundredfold, yea more,” in return. My compensation? The prayers of all the adults in my Ward who know that as long as I am teaching seminary, they won’t have to! But more that, I have been lavished with gratitude from hundreds of parents whose children I have taught. All those prayers and appreciation have carried me through many challenging times for the past 16 years in my family. Sometimes I worry about how I will survive without the strength of all those prayers sustaining me.
But mostly, above all other rewards of teaching seminary, is this one: I have come to know more of the Savior’s love for each of these young people. I have been blessed to be able to see them as He sees them, hair uncombed, bleary-eyed, without make up, in their hoodies and PJ bottoms and slippers, not trying to impress anyone, just exactly as they truly are. I have come to love them intensely as I see them “wrestle before the Lord” – sometimes they are triumphant, and sometimes they are not. But whether they fly or fall, I know I stand on holy ground as I witness it, every morning for 2912 days.
I miss it already.