Speech delivered at McKay School Education Convocation in August 2004

In the spirit of graduation, we are republishing the McKay School convocation speech of long-time teacher Nancy Livingston. In her August 2004 speech, she recounts her experiences as a teacher as well as her rich history with Brigham Young University.

Nancy has been teaching since 1963 and knows many of the men whose names are immortalized by BYU buildings. Some of these include Gerritt de Jong, Ernest Wilkinson and Harold B. Lee. While she didn’t know Karl Maeser, his daughter was her fifth grade teacher at the BYU Academy, which used to be located on lower campus. Livingston also shares her family’s history with the teaching industry, mentioning that both of her parents and her grandfather graduated with degrees in education.

Livingston encourages graduating students to continue learning and working hard. She knows that a career in education is challenging, yet rewarding. While teachers may not see these rewards until years later, it is important to continue working with students. Livingston says that in her long years of teaching, she has never been bored.

You can find more of her teachings in the McKay School Children and Reading section. Her full convocation speech is included below.

I am honored to be included as part of this celebration today. You all look wonderful in your cap and gown attire, and well deserving—you have earned it! And I know you have learned a lot, but I thought I would share some of the things others have learned in this great process of becoming educated. I want to read some comments from some youngsters about what they have learned. It comes from a book called Lots of Love, and the person who compiled this noted, “Loving is the first thing children learn and I wish life would teach them to never forget it.” A five-year-old says, “I can speak French…I can say Paris.” We have kindergarten children who say they know the alphabet because they know the alphabet song—but they’re not sure which letter “elemeno” is. Another child complains, “All of my clothes have had other people in them.” My daughter has eight boys, all of whom might agree with that statement. And a four-year-old has learned one fact of life when he says, “Once you’ve had a baby, you can’t put it back!” I personally can identify with this child who says, “Old ladies aren’t really old ladies; they are just people wearing old clothes.”

I have quite a heritage with Brigham Young University. I am probably the only person on campus that knows in real-life the people most of the buildings are named after—Carl Eyring, Gerritt de Jong, Ernest Wilkinson, Franklin Harris, Thomas Martin, Harold B. Lee, who performed at my wedding ceremony—even Heber J. Grant, who was my mother’s uncle. No, I did not know Karl Maeser, but his daughter was my fifth grade teacher at the BYU elementary school, which did indeed exist on the lower campus where Academy Square is now.

In addition, my grandfather graduated from Brigham Young Academy, my father also, and my mother received her county teacher’s certificate in 1915, which read, “This certifies that Elsie Booth, being known as a person of good moral character, and having completed one year of normal school study and training…is authorized to teach in the grammar grades of the public school of the State of Utah.” I like the qualification of good moral character, but what really impressed me is that it only took one year. Even though she was my mother, I am not sure she was ready to teach. Fortunately, she got married instead to my father, who was teaching at Benjamin Elementary School, and produced nine daughters—most of whom graduated from this institution. And, incidentally, in reading my grandfather’s history, I learned that before he was mayor of Provo, he also was a teacher in West Jordan and Alpine, two of our partnership districts. Isn’t it a small world?

Several years ago teachers in our partnership schools had older students write down what they had learned so far. Some comments from these kids reflect both wise cracks and wisdom. One wrote, “…getting done faster doesn’t make you smarter.” Another said, “…you can get by on charm for about fifteen minutes, after that you’d better know something,” and one complains, “I learned that the teacher hardly ever gets sick.” You get the impression that student would like a substitute sometime, just like his classmate wrote, “…the sub was not so great but she was better than the army lady!” The “army” must be his regular teacher who knew how to give orders! But two of the most thoughtful read, “I’ve learned that you can do something in an instant that can give you heartache for a lifetime.” And this, “I learned that you cannot make someone love you. All you can do is be someone who can be loved. The rest is up to them.” Amazing observations on life!

And as new teachers, you too will learn a lot! Brad Wilcox, who some of you had as a professor here and who is now a mission president in Chile, wrote about what he learned in his first year of teaching. He begins by saying that one of the biggest challenges his first year was not just the students, but it was the veteran teachers who wanted him to teach as they did. When he placed his desk at the back of the room, one of the teachers warned him, "You can’t put the teacher’s desk back there, it has to be up front so you can see if the kids are cheating.” Being Brad, we know he kept the desk where it was. His reason. He didn’t plan on sitting at his desk much of the time. He was up and about the classroom, involved in his students’ learning. Again a good lesson for all of us.

What I have learned so far is that teaching is hard work—physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging—and also very rewarding. The first year I taught I had a little boy who called me “Mrs. Living…” instead of Livingston. That was really rewarding to be considered living because at four o’clock I felt nearer dead than dedicated to my profession. I always took work home with me—and my husband didn’t understand why. He was a banker, and didn’t bring home anything—not even money! However I can honestly say, even with the hard work, I have never been bored teaching, and I think my husband sometimes got bored at the bank. So the rewards are there for us in different ways.

And as teachers we worry about the child who doesn’t do well. One student, whose behavior was a daily challenge, brought me a bouquet of fresh flowers, and as I thanked him, he said, “That’s okay. I just picked them up at the cemetery on my way to school.” That summer I took flowers to Jeff—for his funeral—he was killed riding his bicycle—and as his mother sadly said to me, “He was a problem in school, wasn’t he?” I promised myself that no parent would ever feel that their child was a problem to me, and I have tried to keep that promise.

I’ve also learned that rewards may come a few years later when a former third-grader writes a note thanking you for being her teacher and saying she remembers everything she learned and uses it now. She too is a teacher. And then there are some things people remember that aren’t so fun to recall. Several professors from BYU were presenting a paper in Texas and my name happened to be included. A professor from another state came up and asked, “Is that Nancy Livingston from Utah? Is she still alive?” Then she added, “I took a class from her thirty years ago and she was old then!”

And, yes, I am old and still alive, and young at heart because I have been blessed to work with you wonderful students—to catch your enthusiasm, your energy, and see your educational expertise grow. And yes, I have learned a lot, as you have, and I still have a lot to learn, as you do. I like some thoughts expressed in The Joy of Learning, by Mary Hull Morh.

The Joy of Reflecting—We think about issues of war and peace, we weigh the pros and cons of personal decisions, we ponder the meaning of love and death…

The Joy of Beginning and Ending—We learn that we have a lifetime to grow, to change our minds, and to welcome the new. We discover the joy of learning.

As I continue to learn, I worry that some children may have already learned that the world is not a loving place, and you, as teachers, may be the best thing that has happened to them as you nurture them and teach them. And to borrow a popular mandate, let us “leave no child behind,” neither academically, socially, nor spiritually! And I have learned that you can do it. Brigham Young University produces the best teachers in the world, and fortunate indeed are the schools where you decide to teach.

As you go out into this world, remember the teachings to Heber J. Grant who advised us that, “Every man among us carries on his shoulders the reputation of his Church…and we need to continue to break down prejudice and build goodwill.” He further states, “I believe that the teacher who has a love of God and a knowledge of Him, a love of Jesus Christ, and a testimony of His divinity, a testimony of the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who implants these things in the hearts…of the children he is teaching, that such a teacher is engaged in one of the noblest and…remarkable labors that any person can be engaged in.”*

*Spiritual Development Needed in Education, Improvement Era, October 1925 (1092)