Sunday, March 10, 2013

Dork Dots

September 5, 2007

As I mentioned before, I didn’t keep a journal for these first few weeks, but here’s what I remember.

The Provo, UT MTC is the temporary home to thousands of missionaries before they head off to the areas of the world to which they were actually called. A missionary’s length of stay at the MTC depends on what language he or she is required to learn. When I was there, those who would be speaking a language they already dominate received no language training and were there only for three weeks to learn the basics of being a missionary. Missionaries learning easier foreign languages (including Spanish) stayed for nine weeks, while those learning harder languages (like Russian or Mandarin) were there for twelve. (Today, all stay lengths have been reduced by a third.)

A few weeks before I entered the MTC, I received a call from an administrator there. They gave me an impromptu oral exam on my Spanish; an MTC instructor started speaking to me in Spanish, asking me small talk-type questions, just to evaluate whether I would need language training or not. I had taken seven years of Spanish in school, but it had always been my worst subject, and speaking aloud was the hardest part for me. I understood it well enough, and I could read and write a lot, but I’d always been embarrassed to speak Spanish and avoided it whenever I could. Needless to say, the telephone language test didn’t go that well for me. The MTC assigned me to an intermediate zone, one for missionaries that had learned some of their mission language before but still needed work before heading out to the mission field. I remember feeling a little disappointed; the MTC already didn’t sound like a lot of fun to me, and I knew how much I disliked learning Spanish, so I didn’t want to do it any longer than I had to.

That’s about as much as I knew about my stay when I walked down the hall from the last meeting with family. I don’t remember everything that happened from this point, but I know I waited in a pretty long line of brand new missionaries to get set up in the MTC. They checked our immunization records and gave vaccines to those who still needed them, they gave us some information about where we’d be staying, and they handed us a card showing who our companions would be. A missionary companion is your partner in everything you do. And I mean everything. Your companion is with you twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The only time you’ll even be in different rooms is when you have private meetings with mission leaders or one of you is in the bathroom. Oh, and guess what? You don’t get to pick your companion. The leader of the mission, the mission president, assigns companionships to work together for a period of months at a time. Because of this, a mission companion can be your closest friend or your biggest challenge, and any former missionary will have stories about both kinds of companions.

The card they gave me said my companion was “ELDER STOJIC”. I looked around in the room full of missionaries, glancing at their nametags. I didn’t find him, but there were so many people, it was silly for me to have even tried. I took my suitcase and the other items they gave me to try to find my dormitory.

The missionary dorms are in buildings all across the MTC campus. Mine was in a larger building that also contained rooms for teaching mock lessons to volunteers pretending to be people interested in the church. Those rooms would later come to be among the most stressful in the MTC for me. My dorm was a small, rectangular room with three bunk beds (so six beds total) on the third floor. At least half of that floor was reserved for missionaries learning Spanish at an intermediate level or those who already spoke it fluently. This allowed us to practice Spanish virtually all the time, as our interaction with non-Spanish-speaking missionaries was pretty limited. But very little Spanish was spoken that first day.

My bed in our dorm after several weeks in the MTC. Not particularly tidy.

I know I met my missionary roommates in our dorm, but I can’t remember whether it was the first time I walked in, or sometime after that. Whenever it was, I think all three of them were there, including Elder Stojic. The other two missionaries were Elder Newman and Elder Shearman. We had some free time before a required meeting, so we used it to get to know each other. My companion, Elder Stojic, was from Phoenix, AZ and had attended a community college there for a little while before leaving on his mission. He was going to the Mexico Veracruz Mission, too. Elder Newman was from Alpine, UT, and had recently completed high school. He was headed to the Texas Lubbock Mission, speaking Spanish. Elder Shearman was from Tucson, AZ, had attended a year of college at the University of Arizona, and was going to the Mexico Oaxaca Mission. I remember being disappointed that none of them had gone to BYU. For some reason, I had figured that the MTC would be full of BYU students, and I’d be seeing familiar faces all the time. My world got a little bigger that day as I realized that Mormon missionaries come from all kinds of backgrounds instead of being the simple typecast I had imagined them to be.

Those three missionaries and I made up what they called “District 47-D”. A normal mission district is a group of several pairs of missionaries, though their size varied a lot in the MTC, depending on how many missionaries started in a given week. New missionaries came every Wednesday and stayed in their districts until they left the MTC for the mission field (the area of the world to which they were assigned). Our district, at only four missionaries, was pretty small. The two extra beds in our room would go unused. I kind of wished there had been more of us. The three other missionaries seemed to get along well naturally, but I felt a little like the odd man out. Since all four of us had the same class schedule and shared the same room, there weren’t a great number of times that they didn’t have each other to talk to (in other words, the times one of them was forced to interact only with me were rare).

Looking back, I can’t blame any of them for getting along better with each other instead of me. I was very socially reserved. I took being a missionary extremely seriously; I believed I had been called by God to do an important job, and I intended to work really hard to do it. In a way in which I now recognize was pretty stuck-up, I initially resisted laughing at a lot of the jokes they made, which I thought were immature. Through my time at the MTC, I came out of my shell a bit more and started to recognize the talents each of them had (especially those that I lacked), but the first few weeks were awkward ones for me, socially.

After this initial greeting we went to some large meeting for all the new missionaries, but I don’t remember it very well. I’m sure they welcomed us and explained some of the MTC rules or something like that. Afterward, we broke into smaller meetings divided by zone. A zone is a group of several districts. In the unusual configuration of the MTC, your zone is also your congregation for church on Sunday. Most church congregations are called wards, but smaller congregations are called branches. A branch president leads a branch (as opposed to a bishop, for a ward). The branch president and his two counselors conducted this smaller meeting we went to. They introduced themselves to us and explained that we would be in their branch for as long as we were in the MTC. They also detailed a few of the rules that we hadn’t covered yet.

Mormon missionaries follow a lot of rules. Stay within sight of your companion at all times. Don’t flirt with anyone. Keep your hair trimmed short. Shave every day. Always refer to other missionaries as “Elder/Sister” and their last name. Use mission-owned cell phones only for coordinating missionary activities. Use computers only once a week for an hour or less to email your mission president and back home. The missionary handbook, a small, white booklet that missionaries carry around with them, contains all these and many more. One of the first pieces of missionary jargon and I learned referred to this handbook of rules. Missionaries called it their “White Bible”.

Out in the mission field, these rules are mostly on your honor. Companions and mission leaders are supposed to encourage one another follow the rules. On the whole, the majority of missionaries follow the rules, though some infractions do occur. But most missionaries believe they’re doing their duty to God, so they’re willing to submit to rules that other twenty-year-olds might find draconian. Part of the MTC’s role is to help you get used to this kind of life in a more controlled environment.

The last thing the branch president told us was that we could now remove the orange sticker from our nametags. These had been present ever since we put our tags on when we arrived. They served to mark us as newbies to anyone that might find us in case we got lost around the campus. Its slang name? The dork dot. Anyone wearing a tag with a dork dot almost certainly was lost, confused, awkward, and scared that day, so the name kind of fit. The branch president suggested that we keep it somewhere as a reminder of this first day. I stuck it on my White Bible.

My (English) White Bible and dork dot.

After that, we walked back to our dorm and went to bed after a long first day as missionaries.

No comments:

Post a Comment