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.     

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Hunger Games Thanksgiving


          Last weekend I went to the movies and saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Now, on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, as I come off a turkey and stuffing induced coma, I find myself a little disconcerted by the juxtaposition of a gluttony-fueled holiday and a movie about starving kids killing each other.
          I first read the The Hunger Games Trilogy about a month before the first movie came out. Although I had heard a lot of people talk about the Hunger Games, I was initially quite opposed to reading the books; the concept of kids killing each other in a reality-show format did not seem like something that I wanted to read. Then I was lent a copy of the book and I ended up getting hooked, primarily because of the strength of the main character Katniss. So I finished the series and went to the movies. And although I enjoyed both the books and the movies, I find some of the media sensation around the series to be a little off-putting. 
           The Hunger Games is a story about the divide between the upper-classes and lower-classes, with the upper-classes being represented by the opulent and decadent Capitol residents. And yet, the predominant advertising that I see around me is CoverGirl’s Capitol Beauty Line.  According to CoverGirl, the Capitol residents, who cheer on the contestants and glamorize the ‘fight-to-the-death’ brutality of the Hunger Games, are the trendsetters I should be emulating.  
          Add into that the craziness of Black Friday shopping, the massive quantities of Thanksgiving leftovers that I am still consuming, and I find the result to be a little unsettling. Perhaps I’ll forget about all of this strangeness as I head into the holiday season, distracted by the holiday deals around me and by the bustle that marks this season. Maybe I’ll buy the sparkly nail polish, eat the Hunger Games inspired Subway offering, and fork over money for merchandise, all in the name of capitalism. 

          Or shall I say Capitol-ism?

Saturday, November 9, 2013


“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Maya Angelou

          In the course of my lifetime, I have failed many times. I’ve changed career paths multiple times, lost friendships, burnt bridges, and failed to meet deadlines.
          Right now I am in the beginning months of a new job as a high school teacher, with a teaching-load that seems almost insurmountable. Everyday, I have to teach three classes of anatomy and physiology, two classes of AP Biology, and one research class. I am responsible for planning lessons, coming up with activities, and grading. In short, I am overworked and overwhelmed, to the point that simply doing a mediocre job is leaving me on the verge of burn-out. Perhaps, in time, I will become a good teacher. But for now, I am not. I am, quite simply, a mediocre teacher, perhaps even a teacher edging into failure. 
          I see a similar parallel in some of my own students. I teach AP Biology to a group of very high-achieving tenth-graders, many of whom have spent their lives getting A’s and being told they are special. I am required to teach biology at a college level, which means that I have to cover the material at a faster and more detailed pace than what my students are used to. At their age, my class represents my student's first real foray into the demands of college-level work. 
          Some of my students have risen to the challenge while others are struggling to keep up. Unfortunately, some of the struggling students are starting to lash out at me. And although I remind my students that hard work is essential to success, some of them simply aren’t putting in the necessary time, instead creating flimsy excuses for their poor performance. 
          Failure – and our response to failure – is what defines us. Failure is what spurs us to move on, to try harder, and to change. Failure is the point at which we adapt and become stronger. Or rather, failure is an opportunity to adapt and become stronger. 
          I wish that I could tell my students the importance of learning to fail. Even if I did, I am not sure that they would listen. I suppose that is a lesson that they will have to learn on their own. 
          Even if learning that lesson requires failing first.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fake It Til You Make It, Anatomy Style


Recently, I started a new job teaching anatomy and physiology.  I have a pretty comprehensive background in developmental biology – I can lecture for hours on the development of the heart, brain, and muscular system.  I can talk about the structure of the cell and how structure lends itself to function.  I can trace the genetic pathways and give the structure of many of the mature organs. 

But the anatomy of the adult human body?  I’m a little lost.  I teach within the context of health science and I simply don’t have the medical background required.  And so I find myself falling back on an old Mormon adage: “fake it til you make it.” 
        In the Mormon context, “fake it til you make it” means claiming that you believe in Mormonism until you find yourself actually believing in Mormonism.  Every month we would have testimony meetings, where members were encouraged to share their belief in the truth of the Gospel.  We were told that the best way to gain a testimony is by bearing it.  And so every month we would be surrounded by members who all claimed to believe, who all claimed to know.  As to who was an actual believer, I am not sure. 
         Now, in my new job, faking it until you make it means not admitting that I’ve never dissected a cat before.  It means comforting students who are nervous about the up-coming cat dissections, telling them that it isn’t as scary as it sounds, when in reality I’ve never dissected a cat before.  I have dissected other things – I am a master of dissecting embryonic and new-born mice – but never a full-grown cat.  I can only hope that my constant reassurance of students hold true for me as well. 
          Last week I lectured on skin conditions.  Most of the knowledge I presented I had learned just a few days before.  For the lecture, I had to draw on my background in biology and I also had to research a lot of conditions beforehand.  Even so, there were a lot of questions I could not answer.

          The difference?  When I didn’t know something, I said so.  I didn’t try to lie and I didn’t pretend to knowledge that I didn’t have.  I hope that the students understand that their teacher isn’t all-knowing.  If they can’t or won’t understand this fact, that is none of my concern.  For me, I am simply trying to be the best teacher that I can, within the context of my limitations.  


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Review: False Prophet

Satire (noun): the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose or criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Sometimes the truth can be strangest of all.  In her book "False Prophet," author Donna Banta once again draws on her skills as a satirist to expose the weird, sometimes odd, almost always heart-breaking realities of being a Mormon.  In “The Girls From Fourth Ward,” the story was about how far Mormon girls would go to get into BYU.  In “False Prophet,” the story centers around Ryan and the very sweet but over-worked Carrie Zimmerman, who finds herself repeating the refrain “I love being a Mormon,” in order to cope with the exhausting and mind-numbing realities of being the bishop’s wife.           
          “False Prophet,” picks up again with Lieutenant Matt Ryan, who is burnt-out and disillusioned from his last run-in with the Mormons, who had foiled his investigation at every turn, ultimately leaving the murder unsolved.  When he discovers another murdered man clutching a blue and gold embossed Book of Mormon, his reaction is, quite simply, to close his eyes and whisper “Jesus Christ.  Not again.”
 This time, the murder victim, Brother Sid Dooley, was a lonely widower who embraced Mormonism with zeal after the death of his wife and only daughter.  Brother Dooley is the eccentric character that is found in every Mormon congregation (ward), a lonely man who walks around claiming to see angels and talk with God.  When he turns up murdered, having ranted about a false prophet shortly before his death, the only suspect that the police can come up with is Bishop Zimmerman, who had spoken to Dooley shortly before his death and was the one to discover his body. 
The story is a real who-dunit, an adventure that keeps you guessing at every turn.  There is the familiar cast of characters from the first book, with an increased focus on the sweet but exhausted bishop’s wife Carrie Zimmerman, who is nine months pregnant and stressed about balancing her family’s meager finances with her ever-increasing frustration over her narrowing life.  “I love being a Mormon,” she whispers at every turn, while the realities of having a husband falsely arrested for murder pushes her to make choices that aren’t quite Mormon in nature. 


Sunday, October 6, 2013


If you look at my face, I have a faint scar that crosses my forehead.  It doesn’t look like much, just a simple scar that goes across the right side of my forehead and then disappears along my brow-line.  The only hint as to the severity of the scar happens when I raise my eyebrows; my right eyebrow just doesn’t lift as high as the left one.
I got the scar on my forehead in an accident.  I was hit by an elderly driver while walking to work.  My head shattered the windshield and as a result, the flap of skin above my right eye was peeled down to the bone.  Thanks to the work of an excellent plastic surgeon, this injury looks like nothing more than an innocuous scar, one that merits only a passing notice, if at all.  For me, the only memory of this injury is the scar and the perpetual numbness of that area. 
I am twenty-eight years old.  I have been out of the Mormon Church for twelve years.  Most of the time, when I am going about my daily life, I don’t really think about the past much.  Time is the ultimate healer and for me, it has healed a lot.  Growing up Mormon is a hard burden to bear – I spent my childhood and teenage years feeling insufficient and fearing my doubts.  The process of leaving Mormonism, given the misconceptions surrounding people who leave, is also a hard burden to bear.  The experience has left its own kind of scar, one that is not visible.

I could get surgery to fix the scar on my forehead.  There isn’t much that can be done about the nerve damage but I could have the scar lightened, even removed.  But every time I think about the options, I find myself hesitating.  The truth is, scars are often a reminder of what we have survived.  I survived getting hit by a car.  I survived Mormonism.  And so I will wear these marks as a reminder of what I have survived.