Tuesday, April 26, 2011

School Discipline

I clearly remember the first time I was sent to the principal's office. I was in third grade. Our grade was spending the afternoon in the school cafeteria doing square dancing for physical education. Like almost all of the boys, I found the activity less than pleasant — especially when we had to join hands with the girls at our sides. Yuck!

Whenever we had to circle or promenade, the boy across the square from me would run. This caused some problems with dance, and that is exactly why he did it. This boy was a frequent mischief maker. But dance after dance he got away with his shenanigans.

From my viewpoint, it looked like the boy was having great fun. Other boys and even some of the girls were laughing about it. Although I knew it wasn't kosher, I thought I'd give it a try too. The next time we were to circle, I ran rather than trying to keep time with the music. So did the other boy. By this time the joke was old, so fewer classmates chuckled.

Suddenly I felt a hand firmly grip my shoulder. I turned to see a seriously angry teacher. She was actually a small woman, although, at age eight she looked pretty big to me. She marched me unceremoniously out of the cafeteria as my classmates gaped. I was taken to the principal's office. The principal wasn't there, so the teacher pulled a chair into the doorway of the office and made me sit down. She said that I was not to move from that chair until she returned for me.

I knew that I deserved the treatment I was getting. I was upset with myself for following the example set by one of our grade's most notoriously obnoxious members. It chagrined me that he had gotten away with the same behavior multiple times, while I was punished on the first offense. Still, a part of me secretly admired this feat.

As it turned out, this episode occurred quite close to the end of the school day. Soon the bell rang and hundreds of students streamed past the school office. Most gawked at me. Some wondered aloud what nasty thing I must have done. The teacher had purposefully set the chair so that I would be publicly humiliated. I have to admit that it was a pretty effective tactic. I had tears streaming down my embarrassed face.

I was glad when the school grew quieter because there were no more students to ridicule me. For a while I could hear lots of noise from outside the building. But gradually even that noise faded. I sat in the chair for a total of about 40 minutes. For an eight-year-old with nothing to do, that's like an eternity. The hands on the clock seemed to move ever so slowly.

Finally I heard the footsteps of someone approaching the office. It was the cross teacher. She told me to come with her. I wondered what new forms of torture awaited me. But she simply escorted me back to the classroom, had me get my stuff, and told me to go home. I was glad to get out of there, but I was still crying as I raced home on my bicycle.

I never went to the principal's office for discipline again during my school years.

I'm still not sure what was going through that teacher's mind that day. Although students might not believe it, teachers are human too. They are perfectly capable of having a bad day once in a while.

Obviously it is necessary to maintain some level of decorum in school settings in order to facilitate learning. Especially in this day and age it is difficult to know precisely how far educators should be permitted to go in pursuit of this goal.

One of the schools I attended had a large whacking board hanging on the wall of the office emblazoned with the phrase "BOARD OF EDUCATION!" I never saw it used. The threat of its use was enough.

When I was in junior high school, I was once sent on an errand by a teacher during class. As I came near the school office, I could see the gruff assistant principal harshly yelling at a boy that was one of the school's main screw-ups. Not only was the man yelling, he was kicking the boy in the butt over and over again. Hard!

Just then one of the larger male teachers brought another boy who was a frequent participant in the first boy's escapades. The assistant principal was wearing square toed dress shoes. He turned to the second boy and yelled, "I'm going to ask you some questions and you had better answer me straight!" Lifting his kicking foot, he said, "You see the toe of this shoe? It was pointed when I started!" I could see serious fear in the boy's eyes before I turned the corner.

This kind of behavior by an educator would not be tolerated today. It could even result in jail time.

There have in recent weeks been several news stories about educators that are accused of going too far in disciplining a student. In some cases parents have sided with the educators. People have gotten on radio shows and written on websites stuff like, "Why, when I was a youth, if a teacher had to whack me at school, I got whacked much harder when I got home."

Positive incentives are to be preferred over disincentives such as punishment. But punishment must exist as well, since not all disruptive behaviors are prevented through positive means. The question is exactly what is permissible and what isn't.

Frankly I believe that it is not possible to precisely codify what educators may do to punish unacceptable behavior. It probably isn't even desirable to do so. What is permissible is necessarily governed by community standards and general school culture. Certain lines may be drawn. Indeed, some lines should never be crossed.

But the more refined rules regarding punishment become, the less flexibility educators have. Knowing that they could easily step over one of the myriad rules, they are more likely to refrain from punishment at all. School districts that have gone this route often have a very high level of dysfunction. The inmates run the asylum. Teachers in these battle hardened schools just try to make it through the day so that they can collect their pay and go home. Any learning that occurs is a luxury.

I'm not calling for a return to the day when it seemed appropriate for an assistant principle to kick a kid in the butt hard enough to cause bruising. The older I get the less I am convinced that abusive treatment accomplishes much good. Still, it is good for students to learn that in the real world there are harsh consequences for harsh behavior.

Pretty mealy-mouthed stuff, eh? I'm afraid that real life is like that sometimes. We rarely have clarity in developing approaches to solving our most serious issues. It's the nature of life. It's a good thing that some educators are willing to accept this hard work. Perhaps learning this kind of thing from a teacher's example is as valuable as the academic learning a student will get during his/her school years.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Faith of My Father

As a kid, my Dad was one of the most devout people I personally knew. He had rock solid faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I was well into my adult years before I fully understood the journey that had brought him to that point.

Dad grew up in a nonreligious family in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. As the Nazi regime gained control of the country, school teachers and administrators were replaced with Nazi loyalists who taught the children a mixture of nationalism and rationalism.

Dad had no reason to consider religion to be a reasonable approach to life. He had no religious friends. Most of the people he knew thought of religion as a quaint tradition and thought that anybody that took religion seriously had to be deluded or crazy.

But Dad was also very analytical. Studying electrical work, he was used to being able to drive to something that was true. Electrical theories could be tested and proven. The whole war made no sense to him. His analytical mind saw a lot of people doggedly pursuing things that were obviously not true.

After World War II as Dad progressed into young adulthood, he took a very philosophical approach to life. All of his companions drank, smoked, and caroused. These obviously self destructive activities seemed stupid to Dad. He could not bring himself to participate in them from a rational standpoint.

Once Dad was doing a job for a private telecommunications firm installing a complex system in a building that housed several businesses. One of the largest was a tobacco wholesaling company. Seeing how hard Dad worked, one of the bosses offered Dad a job that dealt with the firm's transportation logistics. Dad would have immediately more than tripled his salary. Dad felt that taking such a job would be hypocritical. He could not accept the job and be true to himself, so he continued being an electrician.

During this whole time, Dad searched for philosophical truths wherever they could be found. He took opportunities to study from learned professors and to explore the works of the great philosophers. The more he studied these, the more he felt that all of these missed the mark. They had a semblance of truth but they always veered off before hitting on real truths.

Dad left no stone unturned in his search for truth. He began studying religion, delving deeply into all major religions and even many non-mainstream religions. It became one of his hobbies. He compared and contrasted all kinds of philosophies.

One one occasion Dad had an opportunity to meet with one of the top priests in Germany. He thought that this man surely must know the truth. They had a very frank discussion. Dad was quite disappointed to discover that this high ranking church man had little certainty about his beliefs. At least the man was honest about that fact.

While visiting his parents one weekend, Dad met and was taught by two missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They spoke poor German and wore ill fitting suits. But they caught Dad's attention when he discovered that they were spending 2½ years (missions were longer in those days) preaching the gospel with no pay. In fact, they were paying their own way. Dad had never heard of such a thing.

The missionaries told of the origins of the LDS Church. Dad listened curiously. When they told of Joseph Smith's first vision of Deity, Dad thought of the similarities this story had with other descriptions throughout history of mortals experiencing encounters with God.

Then one of the missionaries bore witness of the truth of Joseph Smith's testimony. Dad experienced a feeling he had never had before. He didn't know for himself, but he knew that the missionary knew that what he was saying was absolutely true. Dad could not deny it.

A few weeks later Dad met with LDS missionaries in the city where he was living. He had read everything the missionaries had given him and he wanted to know more about what he had felt that day. The missionaries opened with prayer. Dad found this meeting somewhat less satisfying because he had an agenda to get certain deep philosophical questions answered while the missionaries had an agenda to teach a set lesson plan. But Dad agreed to another meeting.

When the time came to start this next meeting, the missionaries invited Dad to kneel with them to pray. One missionary then turned to Dad and informed him that it was his turn to pray. Dad had never prayed in his life. If God existed at all, Dad could only imagine a non-personal entity. He couldn't imagine a God that was intimately interested in the lives of each person on the earth. He had seen too much evil and carnage in his life to think that such a being could exist.

Dad was a bit flustered, but not wanting to offend the missionaries, he decided to give a short prayer. He opened his mouth to speak, but before the first word escaped his lips he was overcome with the most intense outpouring of love he had ever experienced. He was suddenly aware of the presence of God; not some imaginary being, but an all powerful Divine parent that very personally loved him and wanted the very best for him.

Through his tears Dad finished his brief prayer and the missionaries gave their lesson. But the words of the lesson were nothing compared to the relationship with God that Dad had suddenly discovered. Knowing that God listened to his prayers, Dad prayed almost constantly over the following days. He prayed silently when he was out and about. He prayed aloud in his apartment.

Visionary gifts run in Dad's line. He had many experiences that many believers would love to have and that some nonbelievers chalk up to mental problems. For example, scriptures were hard to come by in Germany in those days. Not having access to his own set of scriptures, Dad saw them in vision.

Upon retiring to his bed at night, something akin to a computer screen would appear before his eyes. The scriptures would appear on the screen in German and would scroll up the screen for hours. This went on night after night until Dad knew the scriptures very well even before he owned a printed set.

Although Dad had a tremendous spiritual conversion to the LDS Church, he did not experience a social conversion. He had to admit that most of the church members he encountered were seriously odd and flawed people. While Dad felt alive in Christ, many church members went about their church activities with seemingly little attention to having a vibrant relationship with God.

When Dad came to the states, he encountered people in the church that he said would have made great Nazis. That creeped him out. But Dad was completely certain about the truths that had been revealed to him and he knew that he could not deny those truths. This approach became the hallmark of Dad's life. It became Dad's identity.

That is the kind of father I grew up with. No matter what questions and perplexities I faced in my younger days with respect to the gospel and the church, I knew with absolute certainty that Dad knew that the gospel was true. Over time I came to know gospel truths for myself. But I would be ungrateful if I did not acknowledge how much Dad's witness influenced me. His faith was strong enough to keep me upright. For that I will be forever grateful.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

GA Visits During My Mission

Years ago I spent two years serving as a missionary for the LDS Church in Norway. During my time there I had occasion to meet several of the church's general authorities. Each of these occasions has left certain notable memories in my mind.

The first of these occasions was when Elder Dean L. Larsen of the First Quorum of the Seventy visited for stake conference in Oslo. Following the weekend's meetings, Elder Larsen had a couple of hours to burn on Monday before catching his flight home. He could have done a little sightseeing around Oslo. He could have rested. Instead he asked my mission president to assemble the mission office staff for a personal training session. I happened to be a member of that staff.

The first thing that impressed me about Elder Larsen was that he took time to sit down with half a dozen young missionaries instead of tending to personal matters. The second thing that impressed me was that he was wearing exactly the same kind of Swedish double-knit suit that I was wearing. He was well groomed and well kempt, but his suit, shirt, tie, socks, and shoes were about the same cost and quality of the clothes the young missionaries were wearing.

Elder Larsen spoke to us for a few minutes about being more effective missionaries. I remember him telling a story about becoming a shot put champion in high school by taking a chance and doing what he felt was right instead of following the pattern that everyone said was the best method. Then Elder Larsen told us to ask him questions—any question at all.

At first we stammered around. None of us could think of anything to ask. He prodded us until we began asking questions. His answers were kind, often coming from the scriptures. Occasionally he replied that he didn't know. After he left for the airport, it dawned on me that none of us had asked anything bizarre or inappropriate.

On one occasion Elder Howard W. Hunter, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles came by the mission office with his sister. They were on their way to a conference elsewhere in Scandinavia and had stopped to visit one of their ancestor's homesteads just outside of Oslo.

Those of us in the office were a bit star struck to see a man walk in whose picture was on the wall of the office. Elder Hunter was very unassuming and low key. He acted as if he were nobody important. He was a man of few words. When we asked how his transatlantic flight had been, he replied merely, "Oh, uneventful."

I had several occasions to interact with Elder Robert D. Hales, then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. While I was in Norway he was called to preside over the Europe Area. He subsequently made a number of visits to Norway, where our mission president was a personal friend.

For one of these visits my mission president asked the missionaries in Oslo to put together a talent show for Elder Hales. Since our mission president and Elder Hales had worked together in scouting, the president encouraged us to use a scout campfire approach for our entertainment.

It turns out that 19-21-year-old young men with encouragement of this nature are far sillier (and even raunchier) than anything you see at scout camp. Some of the office staff sang a barbershop song. It really went downhill from there. A few acts pushed up against the edge of propriety. We surged confidently past that point when one elder that had been in a heavy metal band used a butane lighter to shoot a pillar of flame from his mouth in the darkened room.

Several more acts were down right inappropriate. But the kicker came when two elders performed a "magic" act on the mission president, Elder Hales, and the two assistants to the president. They cut off these men's ties, put the severed ties into a bag, and promised to magically restore the damaged neckware. After the third failed attempt, the elders said, "Oops!" and ran offstage.

Everyone laughed, including Elder Hales. But it didn't take a genius to see that behind his smile he wasn't very happy about the evening's entertainment. The next day our mission president revealed to the office staff that Elder Hales had taken him to the woodshed after the event.

On another occasion, I was riding in the mission van with another missionary and Elder Hales as we took him to a meeting across town. The other elder asked how much light one must have received from the Holy Ghost before denying this testimony would turn the person into a son of perdition. Elder Hales replied that he wasn't sure what the official doctrine was on that point, but that he felt that he had had sufficient light since childhood to know that it wouldn't be a good idea to tempt God about it.

At this point, Elder Hales bore his testimony of the Savior Jesus Christ. The elder bluntly asked if he had seen a vision. Elder Hales kind of skirted that question and replied that his testimony of Jesus wasn't based on a single event. Rather, it was a knowledge that had grown brighter and brighter until it was rock solid.

The next time I saw Elder Hales was when he came to speak at the LDS institute of religion adjacent to the college where I was studying. I was slated to be at work at the time of the speech, but a friend asked me to accompany her while she sang at the event, so I rearranged my schedule. I was sporting a full beard at that time, so I thought I wouldn't be recognized. But Elder Hales publicly recognized me as one of "my missionaries." Then I was a bit embarrassed about the beard because returned missionaries had been advised to maintain their mission grooming standards.

Each time I personally interacted with a church general authority during my mission, I and the other missionaries initially regarded these men as superhuman celebrities. Each time, these men showed their humanity and humility. We then knew they weren't superhuman. I later realized that such imaginary assessments were inferior to what these men really were—fallible beings striving to serve God to the best of their abilities ... and with real power from God.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Mormons are Healthier but Fatter

A series of studies have shown that religious people tend to be more overweight than nonreligious people and that Latter-Day Saints tend to be more overweight than members of other religions. In this Deseret News article author Michael De Groote briefly explores the studies and what they mean.

Researchers have linked the sense of wellbeing that accompanies religious devotion with being satisfied with one's body. De Groote writes, "In other words, religious people feel so good about themselves that they don't notice the fat as much."

Most religions promote a somewhat healthier lifestyle than is common in the broader culture. Some religions have rather austere health codes. Latter-Day Saints in good standing adhere to proscriptions on tobacco, alcohol, tea, coffee, and drug misuse embodied in the Word of Wisdom as defined in the church's scriptures and teachings of its leaders. When a church member is asked if he/she lives the Word of Wisdom, most Latter-Day Saints interpret this to embody only the prohibitions mentioned above.

However, the actual Word of Wisdom in D&C 89 includes a lot of do's along with the don'ts. For example, all food and drink is to be "used with prudence and thanksgiving" (v11), meat should be used "sparingly" and under certain conditions (v11-13,15), and herbs, grains, fruits and vegetables are "good for the food of man" when used properly (v11,14,16,17).

The reality today is that failing to adhere to the WoW's do's will not keep a church member from holding a leadership calling or entering the Temple, while violation of the don'ts will. In essence, church members can be gluttons and/or eat a generally awful diet without being though of as unworthy. But using tobacco, tea, coffee and alcohol, and misuse of drugs are among the activities that make members unworthy.

LDS culture has a deep relationship with food. We use food for recreation. Refreshments heavily laden with fat and refined sugars are regularly served at church activities.  We share recipes for creative treats.  We use food for comfort. We serve decadent funeral potatoes and other unhealthy delicacies at funeral luncheons. We specialize in taking in meals to families dealing with illness or tragedy.

Is it any wonder that many rank and file Latter-Day Saints have an emotional relationship with food outside of church settings?

We also tend to seek to be emulate others with whom we spend time. The more time we spend in church and social settings with overweight people, the more likely we are to become overweight ourselves. It is a cultural effect.

Despite being more overweight than their nonreligious counterparts, Latter-Day Saints tend to live longer and healthier lives (see 4/13/2010 Deseret News article). In fact, practicing Latter-Day Saints live longer than any generally long-lived ethnic group (i.e. Japanese and Swedes).

Researchers say that these differences cannot be fully explained by differences in physical activity, diet, and use of harmful substances. There is apparently a psychological component to LDS religious devotion that tends to enhance health and longevity. But this same element may lend to Latter-Day Saints doing a worse job at battling the bulge.

Frankly, it is odd for the members a religion that prides itself on its health guidelines to have such a problem with excess weight. Studies show that waist-to-hip ratio has been used across cultures and time to quickly and subconsciously judge general health. When church members are generally overweight, this sends a contradictory message about LDS health teachings and practices even at a casual glance.

Having been overweight myself, I know how challenging it can be to return to normal weight. Many physical, cultural, and psychological elements are marshaled against achieving such a goal. I can't help but wonder if Latter-Day Saints would better manage their weight if this had as great of focus as the don'ts in the Word of Wisdom.

Still, while I work hard to live the Word of Wisdom to my best understanding and what actually works for me, I believe that it pales in importance to things like developing a positive relationship with God and loving and serving one's fellow beings. LDS health is an interesting subject, but I try not to get too hung up on it.

Monday, April 04, 2011

I Can't Miss You If You Won't Go

My wife was recently chatting with an elderly woman that lives alone and has no living descendants. The lady explained that she had recently redone her estate planning because the siblings that had been designated to handle her estate's affairs had passed away.

Lacking descendants of her own, the woman had asked a niece and a nephew, children of two different siblings, to accept the positions previously held by their parents. Neither of these people live in the area, but both accepted the invitation.

The nephew and his wife flew in from out of state to visit for a few days. They met the professional people that handle the lady's estate issues and signed the necessary documents. As they visited in the lady's home prior to their departure, the nephew's wife complimented the woman on her taste and specifically noted a number of the woman's belongings that she would love to have in her own home after the woman's passing.

At first the lady was a bit shocked by this discussion. But she shrugged and figured that it was only natural. Besides, it was meant as a compliment.

At a later date, the woman's niece visited, met the estate professionals and signed the paperwork. As they visited in the lady's home, the woman asked her niece if there was anything she saw in the home that she would like to have. After all, designating things like that in advance can help avoid disagreements among the survivors.

The niece looked at her aunt and replied that one thing she would like most in the home is to see her aunt living there comfortably. The 'things' in the home were quite unimportant to the niece compared to her relationship with her aunt.

It is true that none of us gets out of this world alive and that none of us can take any of our temporal belongings with us. It is prudent to prepare for our eventual demise. If you haven't had to deal with the disposition of a deceased loved one's estate, it is likely that you will at some point have that opportunity. It is wise to be prepared.

But the way we perceive the elderly among us is the basis for how we treat them. If we see them as just biding their time until they pass from this world, this will be reflected in our relationship with them. It is unlikely that we will see these individuals the way God sees them.

This is true even if we are the elderly involved. If we are just waiting to die, we will treat ourselves accordingly. We will fail to perceive the immense value that God sees in us (see D&C 18:10).