I had a curious experience in sacrament meeting today as we sang Hymn #184, “Upon the Cross of Calvary.” It’s a sweet little hymn, whose many virtues include being extremely short. That virtue is why it played an important role at a critical formative moment in my life.
I was eight years old in fourth grade in Mrs. Fillmore’s class at Monroe Elementary School in Boise, Idaho. Mrs. Fillmore was on maternity leave, as I recall, and we had an old, irritable substitute teacher for several frightening weeks (I’m sure she was a nice woman, but she scared me). She had been doing a unit on singing, which I enjoyed somewhat but wasn’t especially good at. And now, suddenly, she had announced that we were to have a test for this unit in which we had to pick and sing a song. Sounded easy enough, but only because I lacked the imagination to foresee what such an exam must inevitably entail.
The story is still firmly etched in my mind. I went to my father the night before the test and asked if he could help me prepare. He was in the bathroom brushing his teeth when I approached him. I told him I needed to pick a song and was looking for suggestions. He suggested I find a hymn in the hymn book we had. I carefully picked “Upon the Cross of Calvary” because it was the shortest one I could find. Then my father had me sing it a time or two and gave me some kind pointers. How I wish that he could have been the teacher and the exam would have then been finished. But I felt somewhat ready, just hoping to get through the test quickly and privately. Privately? Somehow I assumed that she would have us come one by one into her office to sing. I don’t think I grasped that the test would involve each child standing before the entire class and singing to an audience that might not be entirely supportive. For me, this “test” would seem more like a hazing.
When she announced that it was time for the test, and that we would each stand one by one in front of everybody to sing, dread mixed with unfounded hope filled my mind. Perhaps all would be well, perhaps my ten minutes of preparation would pay off, perhaps the fire alarm would go off before my turn came. But I was one of the first. As I stood at my desk, my knees weren’t the only thing trembling and crackling. But mercifully, it was soon over, and the snickering wasn’t bad, or perhaps I didn’t notice much of it. The hazing was over, and I survived! Life would go on. I had given it my best shot and, in a sense, triumphed — or at least avoided total disaster.
That was my optimistic and naive summary of that trial, a cheery outlook which lasted for a couple of weeks. Then I got the report card. I was an overweight, clumsy little boy who did poorly in sports, but by golly, I could get good grades. That’s where I hung my oversized self-esteem hat. Would I have another record report of straight A’s this time? I hoped so. When I opened the report, I was devastated. “Singing: D.” I hadn’t missed class, I hadn’t refused to sing, I had participated and been a good sport through it all, but apparently on the basis of my poor performance on one brutal test, my academic career had been ruined. “D.” On top of that, I got a “D” for handwriting. Might as well kiss college good-bye. (Well, I didn’t actually think of that then, fortunately, but I was devastated.) I would joke about my bad grades and try to act like I didn’t care, but I cared. I learned an important lesson: don’t sing. Don’t even try. Hide, run, mouth the words if necessary, but don’t sing.
Next year, in fifth grade, the teacher caught me sitting behind the piano when singing time came up. She thought I was just being funny. (I would have gladly remained hidden. Music is something that is difficult for the musically clueless to avoid.) How foolish of me – such an unnecessary overreaction. But that fear of singing would affect me in every grade. I allowed it to dictate my reaction to roadshows, to holiday gatherings, to public worship. I tried to overcome it in high school and on my mission, and especially when I was bishop of my ward, but I marvel at how long-lasting my poor attitudes toward singing have been.
As I sang that hymn today, this flood of memories came over me, and then the strangest emotion: gratitude. How valuable that weakness has been, I felt, and what an intriguing and integral part of my life it has been. And it may have helped me avoid a little of the pride that I am subject to, and helped me indirectly in other ways. Ditto for the acne, the obesity of my childhood, and various other problems I faced in different phases of my life. As I pondered these things and related burdens, I felt that a kindly hand had been supporting me in spite of myself and maybe even had been helped guide the placement of some elements in the collage of weaknesses glued onto my personal poster. I could suddenly see that they played valuable roles in shaping me, and that there were benefits to at least some of them that I could only be grateful for (at the same time, I can’t excuse my overreactions and poor choices). It was the strangest experience to have all these thoughts fill me as I sang and pondered during the sacrament.
The fact that I often enjoy singing now, though I’m still not good at it, is largely due to the patient kindness of my musical wife and also my musical daughter-in-law, who was instrumental in helping me get past some of my hang-ups. How silly that for decades I let an almost trivial incident in fourth grade hold me back.
Weaknesses have their purpose, but there are times to move past them. Sometimes the Lord even helps them to become turned into strengths. Not yet in this case, but maybe, if I had a little more faith, and just a little talent. New vocal chords might help, too. My singing may not be that great, but never fear — I can get good grades. Sometimes, anyway.
3 thoughts on “Curious Reflections Triggered by the Hymn, “Upon the Cross of Calvary””
Well put. My most glaring weakness as a child was intense shyness. But looking back, that shyness kept me from exploring more dangerous weaknesses lurking under the surface. By the time I got over my shyness (on my mission, of course), I was strong enough in the other areas that I didn’t destroy myself. Interesting how completely painful things can be turned to our benefit with a little bit of perspective added to time.
Love your blog, thanks for putting in the work!
Great post. Four weeks ago I broke both of my elbows. It was a very humbling experience. In the blink of an eye I became dependent on others for my very survival.
My arms are still mostly for aesthetic purposes as opposed to being fully functional appendages, but at least I can now type. Yesterday, with much effort and no small amount of pain, I actually tied my tie before going to church, but I did have to have my wife put my collar down…maybe next week I’ll be able to do that also.
In my moment of weakness I am able to see the hand of the Lord reach out and bless me and my family in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. One small lesson I have learned is it’s ok to put my faith and trust in others instead of trying to do everything on my own.
I’m not quite ready to say, “Boy, I’m sure glad that I broke both of my elbows,” but perhaps somewhere down the road I might if I learn everything the Lord wnated me to from this experience.
Thanks for sharing how a youthful weakness has benefited you since.
OK, call me a political junkie or whatever, but as I read the story I thought I was going to read something about you getting in trouble for singing a religious song in a public school. And I would have come to your defense based on the free-exercise clause or freedom-of-speech clauses of the First Amendment.
The story reminded me of the time that the children in my then-second-grader’s class were told to bring a story or book selection that they could read to their class. We found out after the fact that our boy had chosen a Book of Mormon children’s story book.
I would have never had him take that book to school, but nobody ever said anything about it.