An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for April, 2012

I Liked Teaching Prison Inmates, but ….

Wally, a husky Ute student, blossomed when I worked with him individually in a lockdown building. He mourned when I was assigned to the regular school in minimum security. Two years later, he was moved to minimum security and placed in my U.S. History class.

I didn’t realize that Wally might feel overwhelmed in a classroom with 15 or 16 other students. On his first test day, I didn’t see him leave class without turning in his test. He offered it to me the next day after class. Since our students were all criminals, the school had strict policies about cheating. The secretary informed all students of school policies when they enrolled, and they signed an agreement to abide. I repeated the rule that no tests could be taken from the classroom and showed Wally the bold type on top of the page: “Do Not Take This Test Outside The Classroom: NO CREDIT.”

“I can’t accept a test which you took home.”

“Can I get credit for this chapter?”         

“No, but we’re starting on the next chapter. You can do that work, take the test, and get credit for it.” 

Wally’s eyes narrowed and his voice rose. “Then I did all the work on this chapter for nothing?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t accept your test. That’s school policy.”

Wally pleaded. “I read slow. I needed more time to finish, so I took it to my house.”

“You didn’t tell me you needed more time to finish. I could have given you a few extra minutes.”

“Just take my test this time.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

By now everyone else had exited the school for lunch.  Wally took a step toward me. His jaw tightened. His voice rasped as if he were fighting to hold back tears. “You’re saying I cheated!”

 “I didn’t say you cheated. Taking a test out of the school is against the rules. I can’t accept it.”

Wally’s black eyes sent me a look of pure hatred as he wadded up his test, threw it in my face, and stomped from the room. I was shocked. He had been such an amiable lockdown student. I didn’t intend to drop him from school over the issue and dismissed it from my mind. The next day Martin, the school psychologist, came into my room. Wally had asked Martin to keep him from being dropped from school. Wally said I’d called him a liar and a cheater.  He told Martin he’d been so mad, it was all he could do to keep from picking up a desk and hitting me on the head.

My knees quivered as I heard of Wally’s rage. Martin put his arm around my shoulder. “Are you okay?” Martin reassured me until I quit trembling, but I was left knowing I had let my guard down. I had gotten too comfortable. I should not have stayed alone in the school with a student, angry or not. Wally could have killed me.

Why had I been unaware of Wally’s rage? I think now it was because I expected him to react as I would have. I had not accused him of cheating. I could understand disappointment, but not fury at having a rule enforced. I had briefly forgotten I was dealing with a person who sees the world entirely differently from the way I do.

 Did Wally take the test with the intent to find the answers in the book or from a friend outside of class? Probably. Wally was dropped from school—possibly he was sent to another facility. I never saw him again.

This event caused me to qualify the statement, “I like my students” by adding “in prison” to the phrase. Inmates can be agreeable, even fun, within the confines of prison walls, but that doesn’t mean they can function outside a strictly controlled environment.

Friends and Finite Choices

Families are people we love or try to love because they’re related to us: “I love you Mom, but I can’t let you tell me where to spend my Sundays.”

 Neighbors are people who live nearby and whose quirks may affect our own choices: “Watch out when you drive past Minnie Larsen’s driveway. She never looks when she backs out at 50 mph.” or “Sniff, sniff. The Stewarts are burning garbage in their fireplace again. This time I’m reporting them to pollution control.”

Friends, on the other hand, are people we choose—because we have common interests or because they add to our lives in some way.

Carolyn was probably the only friend I’ve had with whom I had nothing in common. What drew my skinny, book-loving, 15-year-old self to Carolyn was the simple fact that curvaceous Carolyn with the long, blonde hair was a guy magnet. Watching boys swarm around her was as close as I was going to get to a dating life of my own that year.

Adults are less shallow about their choice of friends, but more limited. Once out of school, opportunities for finding new friends shrink—usually to work, church or neighborhood. For Mormons in Utah, neighborhood and church are the same. In Zion, stay-at-home-moms essentially have only one source for finding friends. Those who don’t quite fit the mold—non-Mormons, the divorced, those with intellectual interests—experience loneliness.

Alexandra moved into a Wasatch Front suburb with her two young children following her divorce. She worked alone and didn’t have time for organizations outside the church. Not surprisingly, no one in her ward/neighborhood shared her passion for art or wanted to discuss Joseph Campbell or Greek tragedies with her.

Once her children grew up, Alexandra had time to take classes and join book groups. She found a circle of friends with similar interests. But she had a long wait.

I recognize the administrative advantage for assigning members to wards. Still, people who don’t fit comfortably into their assigned ward might be more likely to attend a ward they were free to choose.

Pictures and Prejudice

The keynote speaker at a ccommunity college onference last week asked participants to think about the first picture that comes to mind when they think of a person creating graffiti. Of course, everyone thought of a brown-skinned male wearing baggy pants and gang colors holding a can of spray paint. The speaker, now a university administrator, then identified himself as a contributor to building and sign graffiti in his neighborhood until a teacher praised the graffiti designs on his papers as “art.” Thinking of what he drew as art and himself as an artist changed this man’s life.

He then asked the group to picture other kinds of people such as terrorist, welfare recipient, or illegal immigrant. When my daughter who attended the conference told me about the exercise, I also pictured the usual stereotypes for graffiti vandal and terrorist—which is normal since I’m not personally acquainted with either. Well, I did teach junior high for ten years. I probably did teach a few graffiti artists. I just wasn’t thoughtful enough to praise the doodles on their papers as art. And I’ve seen a few kids who terrorized their school and everyone in it, but so far their names haven’t hit the news.

Do I know any welfare recipients? That depend on the definition of welfare. Church welfare recipients are somewhat different from state clients I’ve met—not necessarily better—just different. And no, they don’t all work for what they receive. My dad called all Social Security recipients welfare receivers, so that includes all senior citizens who have been on the system longer than the seven years actuaries say it takes to withdraw all our contributions.

The one category that gives me an unambiguous picture is illegal immigrant. Rosa (not her real name) haunts my memory. I only met Rosa once when I substituted in her ESL class. She was the only student there that day. Unbidden, she told me her life story. She first came to the U.S. legally with her husband. When she was expecting her first baby, her mother begged her to come back to Mexico for the child’s birth. Not realizing the legal implications, Rosa left to have her baby. She was unable to obtain permission to return—probably because neither she nor her husband knew the legal steps she had to take. She was in Mexico for a year without obtaining legal permission to return. Finally, she crossed illegally with the baby to be with her husband.

I didn’t know what to tell Rosa. Had I been more experienced, I would have directed her to Catholic Community Services which can provide legal advice to immigrants.

But whenever I hear the word “illegal immigrant” or worse, “illegal alien,” I think of Rosa. I wish people who picture all illegal immigrants as criminals could meet real immigrants and replace the stereotypes in their heads.

Kudos to the Church for supporting humane laws and treatment for illegal immigrants.

Mitt and Mormon Thinking

In an interview with Salon, Judy Dushku said something about Mitt Romeny which made me realize why I don’t enjoy spending time with most mainstream Mormons: “He’s not someone to engage people in conversation. He’s a person who comes to a conclusion, is emphatic about it, and he’s not interested in dialogue and exchange.”

Mitt’s inability to dialogue and exchange ideas with others should surprise no one. Mormons don’t discuss. Mormons don’t dialogue. Mormons quote authority. Mormons affirm each others’ faith. Discussing alternative opinions would imply that legitimate ideas exist outside approved discourse. Members who suggest ways of improving the organization are reproved as murmurers. Those who question official policies and doctrines are on the road to apostasy and are best avoided.

The closest Mormons get to religious discussion is in trying to resolve conflicting statements made by General Authorities. Even there, a pattern is followed. Prophets trump apostles who trump everyone else. Recent prophets outrank those of the past—although Joseph Smith gets some deference.

My neighborhood book group came close to having a meaningful discussion recently. After reading Irene Spencer’s memoir, Shattered Dreams, most of the group wondered how the author could have received an affirmative answer to her prayer about becoming a LeBaron plural wife. The discussion about discerning between our own wants and needs and divine inspiration ended when Sister Alwis Wright informed us that only people who keep all the commandments received authentic answers from God. Everyone else can be deceived. “Even what some people think are trivial sins like swearing will keep a person from receiving answers,” she informed us.

Well, that ended the discussion. Who was going to admit to trouble understanding answers to prayer if the problem is secret sins—maybe even swearing?

Thought-provoking questions raised in Church classes are handled much the same way. Askers who push for satisfying answers may find their worthiness questioned—or the topic will be termed a “mystery” about which lesser persons should not inquire.

Our son was asked not to return to his Institute class when he brought evidence (some from LDS sources) disputing the instructor’s insistence that all 66 chapters of Isaiah were written by one person. “Thou shalt not disagree with Church leaders” might as well be the 14th Article of Faith.

Mormons are taught from infancy to follow the prophet and that our leaders will never lead us astray. April points out in her post at Exponent  that Mormon leaders even tell us what we think—“Mormon women don’t want the priesthood.”

Black and White Mormon thinking may serve Mitt well during political campaigns where thoughtful answers to complex issues are not the norm. Would it serve him in making the kinds of decisions required of a president?


Was That Me?

Skimming through some old journals recently, I came across an entry documenting—even bragging about—the fact that I had made phone calls advocating a political candidate who supported laws allowing landlords to discriminate against homosexuals. (This was in Washington State where candidates with alternate views existed). I also attended a school board meeting to oppose the new sex education program.

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that I’ve changed my views about these and many other issues over the years. Over 30 years have passed with many new experiences and new information gleaned since that time. It would be surprising—even depressing—if my mind had not changed on a few matters.

Why wouldn’t I change my mind about homosexuality when I learned it has a genetic component and is not necessarily contagious? I also learned that the gentle cousin who played dolls with me instead of cowboys with my brother died of AIDS, and that a good friend’s daughter is Lesbian. Knowing a real gay and Lesbian altered my belief that child abuse is a prime factor in homosexual tendencies.

Naturally, I changed my mind about sex ed after raising my own kids and learning firsthand how awkward it is for the most well-meaning, most-enlightened parents to talk to their own children about sex. (I admit I was never most-enlightened parent, but I did qualify as well-meaning). Unfortunately, my well-meaning advice came to, “Don’t do it,” and I closed my enlightened eyes to reality that didn’t match my wistful thinking.

As the saying goes, “Only a fool won’t change her mind when faced with new evidence.” In real life learning isn’t a smooth incline with no bumps, dips, and digressions. Of course, I no longer see either homosexuality or sex education as great evils to combat, but I do see myself in the young woman who made phone calls and attended meetings on those issues. Currently, my focus is on clean air and government ethics. Although my issues have changed, my core beliefs in working for a stronger, better community have not.

Yes, that was me supporting discrimination and opposing sex ed years ago. I’m still the same person, and I need to see people on opposing sides of my current issues with the same tolerance I have for my younger self. Maybe someday they’ll be as wise as I am now.

Safe Sex, Inmates, and Me

I was teaching high school completion classes at Utah State Prison when the AIDS epidemic struck. Several inmates were HIV positive and all were concerned about transmission of the disease. Aaron, a student, was locked down for several days because he severely beat a new cellmate who claimed to be HIV positive. The logic of beating and bloodying a possibly HIV infected man probably explains the kind of thinking that brought Aaron to prison. Possibly the cellmate only said he was HIV positive to prevent Aaron from raping him. I didn’t know everything that went on back in the cells.

Inmates were full of information about AIDS, most of it wrong. After lunch one day, information flew that an HIV positive culinary worker had cut his finger while making the salad and his blood had contaminated the food. I called the state health department and learned the HIV virus doesn’t live long outside the human body except in laboratory conditions. We were not likely at risk.

My principal decided to make a one-quarter credit class in AIDS information mandatory for South Park Academy graduates. She dumped the job on me although my expertise was limited to a health education class at BYU 25 years earlier. During my four years at the prison I had learned more about deviant sex practices than I ever wanted to know, but I was hardly qualified to teach safe sex to inmates.  My own teenagers still razzed me about teaching them the facts of life with pictures of a cat’s reproductive system.

I needed to keep my job, so I contacted the state health department for information and put together a curriculum. I found the information about how a virus attacks body cells quite fascinating. I had no problem explaining how the virus enters the bloodstream via dirty needles, but I wasn’t keen on giving detailed instruction on how anal intercourse facilitates the spread of the virus. Fortunately, I found a film designed to teach prison populations about the risks of AIDS. I turned on the TV, switched off the lights, and sat in merciful darkness while the film gave my students the straight pitch—no scientific terms for body parts to muddy the waters.

If I Could Do It Over

“If we had it to do over, would we raise our kids in the Church?” George and I, no longer believing Mormons, discussed this question recently. And the first thought each of us had was, “What else was there?”

Neither of us is particularly outgoing and we moved several times during our child-rearing years. Church was a place where we found a built-in social group. Of course, we would have taught our children values without Church programs, but Church provided social opportunities for our kids and the support of other caring adults in their lives.

I believe Wort’s ease at public speaking began with his first talk in Junior Sunday School at age four. He also enjoyed camping and water skiing with the Scouts—activities we didn’t do as a family. Lolly and Jaycee gained leadership experience in the YW program. Both of them served missions which enriched them personally. Our younger kids probably received fewer positives from their Church experiences. Victims of burned out parents, they didn’t connect with youth leaders as easily as their older siblings. Still, Techie has wonderful memories of dirt clod fights with Scout leaders at camp.

Since our kids grew up to be responsible, good-hearted people, we probably didn’t do a terrible job raising them—and Church influence upon them was mostly positive. Still, if I had it to do over, I would not insist the younger two participate in YW/YM activities they hated. And I would offer broader reasons for avoiding alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex than Word of Wisdom or temple worthiness.

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