ST. GEORGE — Marshall McConkie completed his eighth year of teaching Wednesday. He celebrated the last day of school by reading “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot quietly in his office.
McConkie doesn’t teach literature; he’s a seminary teacher at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, situated in a red-brick building nestled behind Dixie High School. Getting to that building can be tricky if you’ve never been there before. You’ve got to drive behind the high school, thread your way through the student parking lot, and then park your car in a space labeled “Faculty Parking.”
McConkie’s journey to that building is stranger still, even if it may seem pre-destined. The best way to retrace his steps may be to move backwards through time.
McConkie was a practicing attorney before he decided that teaching was his calling. The first concrete step towards answering that call came during a sleepless night nine years ago.
“I was working for the Washington County Attorney’s Office,” McConkie told St. George News. “I liked the work, and loved the people I worked with, but it just wasn’t the right fit. I asked myself: Where do I want to be in five years?”
The answer, McConkie said, was not in a courtroom trying to convince the judge and jury of another man’s guilt.
“It hit me like a lightning bolt,” he said. “I decided to quit my job and become a teacher. I told my wife the next morning.”
There was no melodrama. Sue McConkie, who married McConkie before he had completed law school, didn’t shout her husband down or break any dishes while she was questioning her husband’s sanity.
“Instead, she was immediately on board,” he said. “She knew the joy I felt when teaching.”
Then, he had to tell his boss, former Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap. Resignation conversations are never easy, but Belnap was on board, too.
“I don’t remember the specifics of that moment,” Belnap told St. George News. “What I remember is feeling torn. On the one hand, I was sad that he was leaving. I liked him. He was a dynamic attorney who got on well with his colleagues.”
But Belnap was also happy for McConkie.
“I knew he was good at teaching,” Belnap added. “I also knew he was on the path to do something he needed to do.”
McConkie also worked for Rep. Lowry Snow.
“But I knew him before that, even,” Snow told St. George News. “My wife taught choir at Dixie High, and Marshall was one of her favorite students.”
After McConkie had earned his law degree, and returned to St. George, Snow invited the young attorney to join his team. Though Snow was surprised when he learned of McConkie’s decision to give up law for teaching, he was also proud of him.
“He found his calling, and he followed it,” Snow said. “It takes real courage to do that.”
Still, McConkie had doubts. It took nearly a year to find a teaching position.
One day, McConkie was in a judge’s chambers. They were selecting jury members when another lightning bolt struck.
“One of the potential jurors happened to be defense counsel’s high school teacher,” McConkie said. “After this potential juror left the chambers, the judge said: ‘Being a teacher will never make you wealthy, but you will have a rich life.’”
McConkie smiled. Anyone who knows McConkie knows that he smiles often. He said that the judge’s words, like the voice that told him to quit his job as an attorney to become a teacher, was God speaking to him.
“I felt relieved,” McConkie said, “because I knew I was on the right path.”
Before studying law at Valparaiso University, McConkie studied political science at BYU. That’s where he met a law professor who used to teach at Harvard Law School.
“He challenged me in great ways,” McConkie said. “And the way he conducted his classes really jibed with the way I worked as a student. That was the final nail in the coffin.”
When asked why he described the moment he decided to become a lawyer with such a dark turn of phrase, McConkie smiled again.
“I didn’t even realize I did that,” he said, laughing to himself.
McConkie’s call to become a teacher may be much simpler than all that. He can connect with students who are the same age he was when he was first struck by the proverbial lightning. He pointed to a moment he experienced while serving a mission for his church in McAllen, TX, when he was 19 years old.
“I remember riding my bike down a street,” he said. “My buddy and I – you always travel in twos when you’re serving a mission – had just left a house where we were teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to a family of Mexican immigrants. And I felt such overwhelming… joy for what we were doing.”
Though 19-year-olds aren’t generally lauded for their teaching ability, or a nuanced understanding of the endlessly complex thing we call life, McConkie said that he knew what was important to him.
“I was teaching that as much as anything else,” he said. “And I loved the gospel. As we taught that family, the spirit in that house was alive. It was palpable.”
McConkie went silent here, smiling again.
“I wish I could bottle that up and open it whenever I feel down,” he said. “I wish I could share it with everybody in the world.”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.