Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Girl With The Mormon Background

         “When people talk to you, the first thing they want to talk about is Mormonism.”

          Last summer I attended a writer’s workshop, where one of the participants made this comment over lunch. Of all the many things that I am – scientist, writer, ex-Mormon, victim of a freak auto-pedestrian accident – the primary information that my classmates wanted to know about was the Mormonism. It is, after all, the topic of a hilarious Broadway musical and also a source of confusion, sometime hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, to a lot of people. Who are these crazy Mormons and why won’t they be honest with us? I suppose, as an ex-Mormon, they saw me as someone that could give a more nuanced answer than an active Mormon who just wants to convert others to Mormonism.
          One of the workshop attendants was a black Puerto Rican woman, whose brother joined Mormonism shortly before the priesthood ban on blacks was lifted. She spent a lot of time talking to me about the effect her brother’s Mormonism had on her extended family as well as the personal toll Mormonism had had on her brother. I could sense her confusion, as well as some of her heartbreak. The Mormon Church has caused a lot of hurt over the years, from the racist teachings of past leaders to the current antipathy of the current leaders towards gays. I often feel torn between needing to come to peace with my legacy as a former Mormon and wanting to erase that part of my life like a stain.
         I waver sometimes when bringing up my Mormon background and my post-Mormon status. Mormonism was a big part of my up-bringing. Leaving Mormonism was a big part of my growth towards adulthood. And yet, the minute I mention the subject, I feel as though I have been marked. The Girl With The Mormon Background. (Which isn’t nearly as cool as being, say, the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) Maybe I should tattoo an M on my forehead and be done with the matter. But I still haven’t figured out the right approach and I’m not sure that I ever will.

         So I suppose I shall just have to remain as The Girl With The Mormon Background.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mormon Bullying

        I have been having long-running issues with a co-worker, one that I have been trying to ameliorate for a full six months, ever since starting a new position as a teacher. I don’t want to go into details, other than to say that the relationship has been rocky from the very beginning. I have tried my hardest to keep the peace but doing so is exerting a pretty high emotional toll.
       Today, when I finally broke down and told some of my co-workers the specifics of my issues with this co-worker, their response was unanimous.
       “This is bullying,” they said. Five teachers, ranging in age from early career to veteran teachers, all saying the same thing.
       I always thought bullying was for high schoolers. But bullying doesn’t end with high school. And being raised Mormon is an especially potent combination for bullies and victims.
      Growing up in a Mormon community meant an erosion of personal boundaries. Being Mormon means being subjected to yearly interviews by bishops, none of whom have been trained as professional clergy and who aren’t bound to confidence. I had my first interview as a twelve-year old, where I was interviewed by the bishop, whose day-job was as a hospital human resource manager, about my worthiness and personal life. Had I stayed, these interviews would have continued throughout my adult life, had I wanted to remain a Mormon in good standing. Requiring an individual to answer personal questions about their private and intimate life – and to ultimately allow another person make a decision regarding their worthiness, a decision that can have social ramifications within the close-knit Mormon community – is to force individuals to hand their identity and self-worth over to someone else, someone who has the power to refuse you.
      People talk. The bishop we had while I was in high school had an especially gossipy extended family. But to refuse an interview with the bishop was unthinkable. You just did it. You did it because you were supposed to and if you didn’t, you were a bad Mormon. And nothing was worse than being a bad Mormon.
       Add in to this the teaching that the Mormon authorities, from the local leaders all the way up to the leader Thomas Monson, are given their authority from God, and you have a situation that fosters abuse.
       The truth is, I’ve never learned how to stand up to bullies. My strategy is to either grin and bear it or to tell the individual in question to f*ck off. Or to simply walk away. But I’ve never learned how to navigate a working relationship with a bully. I’ve never learned how to face bullies down or discover their weaknesses. I’ve never learned the more diplomatic ways of telling
       I’m not sure what my strategy will be with this particular co-worker. Perhaps file a complaint and ask to have her removed from her duties. Or simply point out her behavior, although I think the situation may be a little too far gone for that.

       Either way, I need to figure out a way to deprogram the Mormon in me, the one that is too timid to speak out against an authority figure and who is too timid to make trouble.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

January Tune-Up

         I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I get irritated by the hordes of people crowding the gym, most of who will stop coming by February. Over the years, I’ve learned that grandiose resolutions – lose weight!, run a marathon!, cut out sugar! – rarely last a week. As I listen to my co-workers discussing food scales and diet plans, I can only think about the fact that good intentions are eventually replaced by reality.
         But what I find works is to fine-tune my life. Instead of turning life upside-down in search of becoming a different person, I’m trying to take a look at what is going on and to make a few tweaks.
        2013 was a pretty rough year. I got caught up in an ugly family drama, which ended up throwing me straight back into the rage-filled morass that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to overcome. Then I started a new teaching job that took over my life. I’ve spent the last four months working long, hard, exhausting hours, to the point that I’ve lost track of my old life.
        And so, finding myself back in school after the winter holidays, I find myself looking to tweak my life a little, finding ways to cut down on the workload and carve out a little more time for the things that I enjoy. The truth is that I don’t know if I am in the right career. I don’t know if my current job is going to be a long-term gig or if I am going to be searching for new job in May. My hunch is that I may be looking for a different teaching gig, if not a new profession. I am hoping to start up grad school again in the fall. That may be possible – or it may not be, I’m not sure. But for the moment, I’m simply looking to find a little extra time to do the things that I enjoy and the things that will benefit me in the long term.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mormon Busy-work

        Back in the days when I was a believing Mormon, my church-mates and I often touted the busy-ness of our lives as a mark of pride. We work up early every morning for seminary, showing up at the church building at 6:30 for 45 minutes of scripture study. We had church on Sundays that lasted 3 hours. We had youth activities. Most of our time outside work or school was taken up by church activities. Mentally, we were preparing ourselves for the days when we would go on missions and have children and become homemakers and serve as lay-clergy and do volunteer work for the church, balancing the ever-increasing demands of life and church. 
          We told ourselves – and each other – that the time we invested and the sacrifices we made were for the better good. These were the sacrifices that got us closer to the ever-illusive promise of the Celestial Kingdom and godliness. I too was constantly exhausted, struggling to balance my life with the demands of church. But I told myself that the work just made me stronger and so I persevered.
          Looking back, I wonder how much of that was time well spent and how much of that was time wasted. As Mormons, we were workers. We invested a lot of time and effort, struggling to balance everything that the church demanded of us. But how many of these requirements were impactful and how many of these requirements were simply busywork, tasks designed to keep the members exhausted and stuck in the system?
          As a Mormon, I learned how to work. I learned how to wake up early even when I didn’t want to. I learned how to keep going even when I wanted to quit. I learned to pull long hours and still wake up the next day. I learned not to stop.
        However, what I didn’t learn was to make my work mean something. I never learned how give my work impact and significance. I never learned how to prioritize and to establish boundaries. I never learned how to say no or to question whether I should be doing something. I never learned to value my time.
         I went to seminary because Mormonism required me to. I didn’t question why I was spending 45 minutes a day learning something that didn’t seem relevant. I didn’t learn to ask if it was a productive use of time or simply another activity that lead me towards exhaustion without accomplishing anything significant.
          Sometimes I feel this idea of busywork strikes at the heart of what Mormonism is. Mormonism is a demanding religion – members are required to invest significant amounts of time, money, and emotional energy. This has been the case from the earliest days of Mormonism, when the early converts gave up their homes and their families to follow the leaders across the US. However, we were never allowed to ask why. We couldn’t question the leaders. We weren’t supposed to read the outside literature on Mormonism.

          We were just supposed to stay busy following directions.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Attendance Lessons

Last month, my bosses at work decided to institute an attendance competition.  As high school teachers, we are required to submit attendance electronically every period.  In order to improve our record, which factors into the amount of funding our school receives, the deans of instruction started a competition, declaring that the team with the best attendance record would be treated to breakfast by the losing team. 
Some teachers are very methodical and always get their attendance in on time.  I am not one of them.  As a first-year teacher responsible for teaching 3 different subjects, I feel like I’m juggling chainsaws, trying to remember to do everything that is required of me.  Everyday, I teach three sections of anatomy and physiology, two sections of AP Biology, and one section of a research class.  On the days when I am more frazzled than normal (and there are many of them), my attendance record slips. 
At the end of every day, the deans sent out attendance records, with details of which teacher forgot to take attendance during what period.  Inevitably, my name was always on the list, a badge of shame as to my sloppy record.  The leader of our team – the head of the social studies department – began to get into the habit of stopping me in the hallway to talk to me about my attendance.  Then she started to send out team-wide emails every period to remind us to take attendance.  Emails that I never saw in time for them to be of any use. 
I am a pretty stubborn person.  Put enough pressure on me and my first instinct is to do the opposite of what people are pressuring me to do.  However, this was the workplace and the competition, misguided as it may have been, was for a worthy cause.  I did want to be better at taking attendance even if it did irritate me that my name and attendance record was sent to the rest of my colleagues on a daily basis. 
So I swallowed my pride.  I bit my tongue, holding back the sarcastic comments, and I nodded along to my colleague’s suggestions.  One of my students, in a burst of energy that I have yet to see being applied to biology, made a huge sign for my classroom that said “TAKE ATTENDANCE.”  My problematic class was the last period of the day, when I was too tired to remember much of anything.  So a teacher down the hall assigned a student to come and remind me.  Everyday, this student, who at the beginning of the year wrote down that his goal for my class was “to remain invisible for the entire year,” came walking into my room to remind me to take attendance. 
My attendance-taking improved, if only marginally.  I was still the teacher that marred my team’s record but my average improved and eventually the competition ended, with my team coming out as the winner.  When the holiday break ends and I return to work, the other team will be required to bring us breakfast. 
I also suspect that I learned something.  Although what that lesson was, I still haven’t figured it out.