Guest Post: A Sister Seminary Teacher Speaks

by Bobbie S.

      For years, I have struggled with my self-esteem because, as a lifelong Latter-day Saint, I’ve been raised with the idea that I’m not as important as the men around me; I am an auxiliary—an appendage to the men. So when I received the calling to serve as a stake seminary teacher, it felt like I was finally receiving validation for my decades of hard work and service in the church. I began to feel like I really mattered.
         But I soon discovered that the seminary program isn’t very good to women. At least not outside the Utah corridor (I have no like what it is like on the inside—I’ll leave it up to those sisters on the inside to tell us, if they can). My first exposure to this system was painful at first, but I tried to grin and bear it because I wanted so badly to lead and guide the youth of the church on a daily basis. Most importantly: seminary is the only space where young men and young women are equal, where they aren’t sorted into priesthood holders versus young women. However, this equality is sadly not reflected in the way the adults are organized.
        First of all, all of my CES supervisors are male. Their work is a paid position. They do have female secretaries, however. To make matters worse, these “brethren” all refer to each other and to us seminary teachers by titles, out of respect, whenever they call or email us (“Dear Sister Smith . . . . Signed, Brother Jones”), however, they refer to all of their female secretaries by their first names, as if they are little children or not important enough for titles. This really, really bothers me, and contributes even more to the impression that, in the church women just don’t matter. It really breaks my heart that one of our local CES secretaries is a hard-working single mother who hopes to get a college education, which is why she is working for CES. I feel it was very demeaning the way her PhD-level bosses treat her like she doesn’t deserve to be called “Sister” but the seminary teachers do.
        Almost all of our seminary teachers are women. This is probably because of the fifteen volunteer hours per week required of seminary teachers—it is a very time-intensive calling that (our local leaders must assume) the typically male breadwinners can’t spare time for. When I attend our multi-stake in-service meetings, I see only a couple of male teachers. It is so depressing to me that we have this army of women teachers, yet the church is telling us that we need men for our supervisors. Why couldn’t the church hire women to supervise us? I would much prefer to work with women in this capacity. It is very demeaning for me to see this army of volunteer women having to sit and take our marching orders from a group of paid men.
        At one particularly painful in-service meeting, we even had a male speaker who brought his wife along to help him with his visual aids, and when she wasn’t setting them up according to his preferences, he actually barked at her from the microphone. It was a nightmare that left me feeling angry, hurt, and wanting to leave the meeting. I was actually shaking out of sympathy and hurt for that poor sister. I wanted to submit a complaint to my leaders, so rather than take notes on this man’s in-service teachings, I spent his entire presentation rehearsing ways I could defend this poor sister and decry the use of women as visual aid-proppers in a room full of female volunteers. But I live in an area where “feminazi” is a word in the lexicon of our politically conservative male leadership, so rather than taking this matter to leaders who would censure me for even broaching the subject, I am writing this piece and seeking support and prayers from my _Exponent_ sisters, instead.
        When our new, mostly female, unpaid teachers receive their new teacher training, they do so via very demeaning videos that portray a new female seminary teacher as a frustrated mom with unkempt hair wearing athleisure, standing  in a messy kitchen, juxtaposed with her sharply dressed, professional husband who gives her the advice she needs to do her calling. 
        She spends the entire series of training videos inside kitchens, which sends a very demeaning message to those of us who want to feel like CES values us for our knowledge of the scriptures, not our cooking skills. These seminary training videos portray the sister seminary teacher as a clueless, flustered homemaker and is available to the public here. When this frustrated housewife asks her husband for help with her calling her husband is portrayed as confident, on his way out the door because HE apparently has important things to do and places to be, while his poor frustrated wife is overwhelmed because she has messes to clean up (note the mass of scattered toys and open peanut butter jar with knife sticking out in the foreground as they talk—just wow), so her husband gives her the advice that she apparently isn’t smart enough to figure out on her own: why don’t you call your stake seminary supervisor for help?
        As a woman, it really stung me to watch this video. Why did the church think that we sisters weren’t smart enough to know to call our supervisors when getting started on our callings? It was also hurtful to me how portrayals of men and women are so unequal in this teacher training video. No man in these training films was ever portrayed with messy hair or sweats like the woman is, fretting over his messy room, or taking counsel from a competent, smartly dressed wife; the church is sending a powerful message to all their LDS youth instructors with these training videos, and it really stings.
        Next, frazzled housewife-seminary teacher is shown at the home of her stake seminary supervisor—also a woman—and they meet in her kitchen (kitchens are a major theme in seminary teacher training for sisters; later training videos, also online, depict a seminary student faced with doubts about the church. When she goes to her parents for advice, mom is shown baking cookies in a kitchen.
        The grandpa and seminary teacher who eventually resolve her doubts are both shown in office settings, surrounded by books and professional accoutrements. (This video is embedded in the online seminary curriculum, too). As Sister Supervisor gives Frazzled Sister Homemaker tips on how to be a seminary teacher, they are also training new seminary instructors, but at the same time making subtle implications about God’s army of unpaid seminary instructors who are women. For example, the female stake seminary supervisor pauses their kitchen-table tutorial and cooks something. This video is readily available for all to see in the media library on the church’s library here.
        At the end of this video, note how Sister Supervisor leaves to go cook something. Then in the next video [link here] note how the entire time the two women are talking, a pan is shown steaming behind them, as if the camera took great pains to make sure that this “female seminary teachers as homemakers doing scripture on the side” message needed to come across loud and clear to the church audience.
        Female seminary teachers are never shown at desks or in a study, though male seminary teachers are exclusively, shown in classrooms, offices, or near desks with bookcases.
        I am a woman who loves to cook, but I am also a gospel scholar with a library full of scholarly gospel texts. I have spent years working to become the Sister Scriptorian that President Kimball declared that we need more of in his 1979 women’s session talk, so it really hurts for me to see my role as a seminary teacher reduced to that of a meal prepper and frazzled housewife who needs a man to show her how to ask for help in her calling. It cuts me to the core to ponder how many church dollars went into funding this message that my cadre of fellow female seminary instructors are no more than full-time cooks who struggle to comprehend scripture teaching on the side.
        Even worse than the degradation of the male/female power imbalance at CES and the hurtful messages in our CES teacher training is the way that the courses are set up. There is a huge push right now for online seminary. This robs our army of sister-teachers of the right to teach by the spirit. Whereas in the past, we could draw upon our stores of knowledge and the guidance of the spirit when teaching, we are now being asked to use pre-formatted, cookie-cutter web based course designed by men in Utah. Even 18 year-old missionaries are given free reign to teach whatever they want according to a basic outline as prompted by the spirit, ever since Preach My Gospel replaced pre-formatted missionary lessons. So why can’t we seminary teachers do the same? Is it because we are mostly women?
        The excuse being given for this change to standardized seminary is that it benefits students who lead busy lives or live too far away to commute to the church for instruction. But the technology exists to allow us sisters to simply host online video chats, or pre-record classes and then let the students post comments later on. There is no need to replace our voices and individualized messages with cookie-cutter, canned curriculum by mostly men. When I tried to get permission to adapt our online courses to local needs (students with unique learning challenges and emotional issues), I was denied. I pushed back, because I have several students who absolutely refuse to engage with the online courses but who thrived when attending in-person classes, but both CES leadership and my stake leaders treated me as if I had just denounced the brethren. I was sorely reprimanded for not endorsing online seminary, as if I had declared the church untrue. Church leadership seems to be confusing CES web content designers in cubicles with prophets recording holy writ.
        Additionally, Doctrine and Covenants 25 has been removed from the assigned reading this year, so the youth don’t have to read about what an elect lady Emma Smith was. The absence of women from our curriculum stings not only because our teachers are mostly women, but because our students are mostly female, too—by a very, very large margin. The trial of serving as a woman in CES can be summed up in a video clip of Sister Oscarson in our Seminary Teacher training. It is one of the few, rare times that a sister is quoted therein. However, the “brethren” who wrote this course didn’t even bother to get her name right, labeling her as Sister Linda K. Burton. This would never happen to one of the male general authorities’ names. It speaks volumes about how CES views women, and about how my experience has been in this program.
        I am praying about asking to be released from seminary. I love my students, but the way women are treated in CES and seminary is so draining on the spirit and the mind that I don’t know if I can stay much longer. I definitely don’t support this online curriculum that we are now using. I am tired, burned out, and can’t handle the toll this calling is taking on my mental health. I have a dear friend who works ten hours per week for BYU-Idaho as an online instructor and is paid for it. My 15 hours per week as an unpaid online seminary teacher doesn’t make sense, especially knowing that over in the Utah corridor, all of the (mostly) male seminary teachers are being paid to do the same work. I want to be there for the youth, but am I really doing any good for these youth if I support this system? Am I really helping the rising generation by allowing the previous generation to model oppressive behavior where the young ones can see it? But if I leave, they might just replace me with a woman who supports this system, which could be worse. But in staying, aren’t I supporting it, too?
        I wrestle with these questions daily. I am not finding answers. I don’t know if I should go on and let these precious youth watch as their mentor allows the brethren in charge to treat sisters this way. Perhaps if their teacher suddenly disappeared, even if I didn’t say anything about why I was leaving, the questions that my departure provoked would spur some sort of discussion in the future?
        I have a lot of praying and pondering to do. Pray for me, sisters. For all of us. Our youth, especially our girls, need your prayers.

 

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38 Responses

  1. acw says:

    As a stake called early morning seminary teacher in the Utah corridor, I read this post with sorrow and commiseration. Those training videos are so painful. I have no experience with your online classroom set up (are you part of the Seminary Teacher Facebook group where there have been lots of discussions and ideas shared?), but one thing I do appreciate as a seminary teacher is that I operate in this calling pretty independently. If I don’t like how the manual presents something, no one is there (besides the students) to know if I teach it my own way. We have a male, authoritarian S&I principal who does inservices twice a month, but so far he hasn’t come to observe any of my classes this year.
    I was confused by your comment that the students aren’t supposed to read D&C 25 this year. For credit, they have to read the entire D&C including that section, and there is a lesson focusing on Emma that suggests inviting ward sisters to class that day as inspirations: https://www.lds.org/languages/eng/content/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-and-church-history-seminary-teacher-manual-2014/section-01/lesson-32
    What concerns me as well (and why I’m considering asking for a release for next year–but again, if not me, who else would teach and how would they approach it?) is something Ben Spackman wrote about the way we are teaching doctrine in seminary: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/benjaminthescribe/2018/09/the-future-faith-of-our-seminary-students/

    • SC says:

      I just looked this up in my children’s accounts on myseminary.lds.org and can confirm: Doctrine and Covenants section 25 is not listed with the reading assignments that are assigned reading this year. Wow. Who do we call about this? About ALL of this???

      • Emily says:

        Doctrine and Covenants 25 is listed as a reading assignment on my son’s seminary account. It’s number 32.

      • acw says:

        As I mentioned above, the students have to read the entire D&C for seminary credit, including section 25. If your child’s teacher is combining lessons somehow and neglected to enter section 25 on the reading tab, please contact them personally to correct the error.

      • SC says:

        Well I saved a screenshot when I made this comment, so I could show a friend how outrageous this is. So even if the church has since gone in and added section 25 to the reading, I have the reading assignments from myseminary.lds.org that show section 25 clearly absent from the list of assigned sections on the day I made this comment.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Thanks for this valuable, if utterly depressing, insight into the gendering of Seminary.

  3. Ari says:

    Wow! Just wow! Like you, I hoped that my hard work and service would someday bring some kind of validation – that little pat-on-the-head from the patriarchy. But alas! It was not forthcoming. I’ve given up and moved on.

  4. jettie says:

    This is so, so maddening. All of it. Thank you for bringing it to light here, Exponent.
    Note that “CES” is no longer being used by the church anymore–they re-branded it as “Seminaries and Institutes” because the infamous “CES Letter” has gained such a huge following and led so many people out of the church. (The church’s new re-branding effort away from “Mormon” has me wondering what else they are trying to distinguish us from, too–maybe the musical?)

  5. Steve LHJ says:

    I find a lot of the things pointed out to be valuable and important insight, I appreciate that. At the same time, the victim / us vs them mentality is really distracting and makes it hard to glean the good parts out. A general hostile attribution bias seems to run throughout the post, and it’s off-putting.

    For example, right from the outset, “For years, I have struggled with my self-esteem because… I’ve been raised with the idea that I’m not as important as the men around me.” There is no real evidence that there is something called self-esteem that is a function of what other people have done to you. Self-esteem is now considered to be an inverse word for the personality trait/scale Neuroticism, and is largely genetically determined and fixed.

    I give this feedback not because you should change what you are doing if you don’t want to, but because I think much of your message is important, and it’s not going to make much of an impact outside the echo-chamber of others who want to indulge in the victim mentality unless you take a hard look inward and realize what you are doing. It makes your message far too easy to dismiss for the “femanazi” word using crowd, or even moderates for that matter.

    • Jess R says:

      I’m a psychologist and have never heard self esteem described the way you put it here. Do you have some references?

      • Steve LHJ says:

        This year I have been really interested Big 5 research and I originally heard it in a lecture from Dr. Jordan Peterson, a Clinical Psychologist and professor with expertise in the Big 5 personality traits. Here is something he wrote also referencing a research paper he was a part of: “That’s all as reprehensible as the self-esteem craze (self-esteem, by the way, is essentially .65 Big Five trait neuroticism (low) and .35 extraversion (high), with some accurate self-assessment of general life competence thrown in, for those who are a bit more self-aware). See http://snip.ly/5smyx ” Or in other words, self esteem can be described as neuroticism reversed, plus extraversion.

        However, a cursory review of some of the other self esteem literature is making me reconsider and wonder if I over-relied on his expertise and a desire to fit things into a Big 5 model, it may be an oversimplification.

      • Risa says:

        If you’re going to come to a feminist blog spouting any pseudo intellectual Jordan Peterson nonsense, be prepared for the pushback.

      • Steve LHJ says:

        Yeah, I guess I am a little surprised by that. I first came across him as a researcher because I was studying the Big 5 personality traits, and didn’t know of his popularity at first. Pseudo-intellectual is definitely not a word I’d use, after listening to or reading 20-30 hrs of content I’d say he is very particular in both his words and claims, and careful to note what is scientific or extrapolated opinion. As far as his ideology, it seems very centrist and perhaps even somewhat left leaning (see interviews with Russell Brand and Bill Maher to see how much they agree for example), and mostly just common sense put into practical models, so the polarization and strong reactions are a bit surprising to me. I don’t want to derail this conversation to much though

    • Olea says:

      Jordan Peterson espouses a racist and misogynist ideology, I don’t consider him an expert in the field.

      • Steve LHJ says:

        That’s really misinformed, I’m guessing you’ve never heard or read anything directly from him?

      • Anon says:

        Jordan Peterson? Seriously, Steve?

        Probably should have guessed from what you’ve said. Talk about false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Actually, strike that. Peterson is a wolf in wolf clothing.

      • Anon says:

        And, yes, I have read some of his stuff. Not all.

      • anon says:

        Jordan Peterson espouses the opposite of racist and misogynistic ideology. I have studied his works, his books, articles, and lectures. He is misunderstood and misrepresented. It is true that a large segment of the white male population are attracted to his ideas, but that does not mean his ideas are racist or sexist.

      • Risa says:

        Jordan Peterson is the custodian of patriarchy and y’all are surprised that his philosophies are not welcome on a feminist blog. I would laugh if it wasn’t so typical.

      • Jason K. says:

        I see two things about this thread that tend toward persuading me that Peterson is not worth my time. 1) He was initially invoked to tone-police the OP. 2) Once he became part of the conversation, the conversation turned into an extended discussion of his merits, at the expense of the OP.

        If neither says much about Peterson himself, both say plenty about his acolytes, and I personally want nothing to do with that club, on the evidence of this and other places I’ve seen him invoked in online discussion. It’s just more typical dude stuff: we can’t have a conversation about women’s experience without finding some way to make it about a man. Enough, already.

      • anon says:

        To me it was not about a woman’s experience or a man’s experience, but more about truth, define that as you may. Too often we, collectively or individually, judge statements or ideas based on the deliverer or identity, and not on the merits itself. My point was that I have listened to many hours of Peterson’s lectures, debates, and interviews and found nothing sexist or racist. You or I might not agree with all, or even any, of his ideas or theories, but I have yet to hear anyone provide an explicit statement of his that was sexist or racist. Cathy Newman tried to corner him and twist his words, but failed. Michael Eric Dyson also attempted and failed. Now, this points to a bigger question or issue, and that is how we each define sexism or racism, and what falls under that category. I think when we are discussing these issues and trying to get at an understanding, it really helps when we have the same grounding and definition.

  6. Jason K. says:

    On the other hand, it seems hard for anyone to make any kind of critique without someone showing up to complain about their “victim mentality.” Part of the difficulty here is that the critique cannot become sufficiently polite without ceasing to be critique, and then where are the insights you found so valuable? Why can’t the problem be the people who use words like “feminazi” rather than the people who struggle to have a voice in the face of such dismissiveness?

    • Steve LHJ says:

      I definitely think they are a problem, and if those type of people wanted to be convincing to feminists, using derisive language like that would not make much headway. If they are being overtly sexist, it will be hard to take their other points seriously even if they have something valid to say. I definitely don’t mean to make a case for the dismissive or sexist attitudes.

      Some of the things I found valuable in this post include 1) the lack of formal recognition for those in subordinate positions which may reveal condescending attitudes, 2) the overly simplified husband wife dynamic with a put together husband and frazzled wife is not realistic and therefore can go wrong in a variety of ways, 3) the move to more structured teaching in seeming opposition to the more recent pushes of spirit-based teaching, and 4) the lack of female voice in the curriculum.

      The second and forth problem may have sexist underpinnings as part of the problem, it’s not obvious to me the first and third do.

      That there are common sex differences in positions is not an inherent evil, particularly if it is attributable to free market choice and underlying general personality and preferences differences between the sexes. We want freedom of opportunity and choice. I also think portraying common sex differences is not an inherent evil, but perhaps doing so excessively is not balanced or realistic and could be harmful.

      Assuming these differences are due to oppression, or saying things like “So why can’t we seminary teachers do the same? Is it because we are mostly women?” or “Why did the church think that we sisters weren’t smart enough to know to call our supervisors when getting started on our callings?” or the need to point out who is male and who is female in irrelevant likely not sexist situations, comes across as a hostile attribution bias and the need to play the victim, and undermines the credibility of the post.

      I agree with you it’s a difficult balance though in making this kind of critique.

  7. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Bobbie S. I’m particularly struck by your observation about all these training videos that show women interaction only (or mostly) in kitchens or in between food preparation. I think that your analysis here is spot on about what message is being sent. The metamessage that women are (or should all be) SAHMs is conveyed so loudly without a word being said.

  8. Diana Villafane says:

    Dear Sister Bobbie: I will keep you in my prayers. But you must realize it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to change this ossified patriarchal hierarchy, especially when there are so many ladies who seem to feel at home within it. I wish you the best.

  9. Evangelina Voz says:

    Loved the post, thank you for writing this. I can’t bear the patriarchy much longer, but love the gospel. You describe our torment so well. I’m so sorry you have been treated thus.

    Also thank you Jason K. That comment healed several wounds from mansplaining/mormsplaining.

  10. Benjamin Richard Knoll says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. There is empirical support to support the very first experience you described regarding self-esteem:

    “Women who said they never had a female religious leader growing up are 10% less likely to agree that they “have high self-esteem” now as adults, and 30% less likely to “strongly” agree, compared to women who had female clergy at least “some of the time.” (In contrast, the same is not true for men. Men who had female congregational leaders frequently growing up have levels of self-esteem that are just as high as those who never had a female pastor or priest.)”

    More here: https://religionnews.com/2018/07/17/its-good-for-girls-to-have-clergywomen-study-shows/

    This particular study looked at not at LDS members specifically, but worshipers throughout the U.S. in all religious traditions and backgrounds. Nonetheless, there is good reason to think that the effect may apply in LDS communities as well.

    • Steve LHJ says:

      Wish they would have been more specific with number of religious leaders and what constitutes a religious leader. Someone with higher personality trait Neuroticism when there is ambiguity not surprisingly would be expected to give more glass-half-empty assessments, which seems to explain the correlation. Women on average are higher in trait Neuroticism starting in puberty and then consistently for the remainder life, which is why (as the article also mentions) women consistently on average report lower levels of self-esteem than men, as they appear to be inverse measures of the same trait – i.e. high self-esteem = low trait neuroticism and vice versa.

  11. Jennifer says:

    Steve LHJ I encourage you to talk to some women in the church about how they code switch when speaking to men in the church. This article is absolutely written with the objective of getting men in leadership to pay attention.

    • Steve LHJ says:

      I’m not familiar with “code switch”, could you explain? Yeah, I thought getting leadership attention might be a hope.

      • Jennifer says:

        Code switching is the act of changing ones language pattern and style based on the audience that you are addressing. In the church there is a definite style in the way that women speak to men, especially when requesting a change, power, or permission. Compare it when they ask for the same things at work. Many women don’t even realize they do it. Most men don’t even notice it is happening. I know when I told my husband how I ask for something at church he was stunned and now he notices it all the time. In a nutshell we learn from a VERY young age to apologize for our ideas, couch things in terms of the spiritual process we used to come to the (implied probably wrong) conclusion and give every opportunity to let “the priesthood” think it is their idea, no matter the stewardship we have been given. You may respond to this with “that’s manipulative!” Or “that is the fault of the women for not standing up for themselves!” Or “not all women, my wife says what she thinks!” But this is a documented thing, and I can almost guarantee that once you know it exists you will notice it in councils and conversations at church.

      • Steve LHJ says:

        Yeah that makes sense, it seems likely, I’ll try and pay attention to it.

      • Natalie says:

        On code switching. I spend my weekdays as a marketing consultant, I work predominantly for men who defer to my expertise on a regular basis. Sometimes we disagree, discuss hard decisions and come to a mutual consensus
        I have made a conscientious decision not to code switch at church. My church leaders do not know how to engage in conversation with me. My attempts for thoughtful discussion are interpreted as undermining to their authority and not sustaining my leaders.
        I guess I’m just saying, code switching is real.

      • Pete says:

        Example…

        http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/latter-day-saints-and-excommunication-part-ii

        Ally Isom discussing ‘tone’ in relation to women asking for change in the church. Marker 17:10.

  12. Maria Griffin says:

    Sigh. I was an early-morning seminary teacher in a couple different stakes over a twenty-year period, and I taught a total of eight years during that time. I last taught in 2010 when my youngest graduated. My challenges were more with the overwhelming time involved in such a high-demand calling and juggling being a young mother (I gave up breastfeeding my fourth baby to manage) and finding time to study, and later the challenge of having my own teenagers in my class and teaching full time at the local high school. I, too, always had male CES Directors who visited my classes and held inservice meetings. My experience with these leaders was far different from yours in that they were seasoned professionals who were truly there to serve me. They didn’t take themselves too seriouslly, in fact, I remember my favorite supervisor quipping, “We must remember, there is the True Church and then there is CES!” He really honed my skills as a teacher, and in all cases, I enjoyed digging deep into the doctrine in our inservice meetings. My take-aways from this vast teaching experience is a deep, deep understanding of doctrine and an eternal love of the scriptures that to this day sustains me. If you can focus on this (and take a nap during those stupid training videos) and find a way to continue to study and teach even if it is online, you will come away better from this. Good luck to you as you decide.

  13. JNB says:

    I can’t say enough about how much I feel the sentiments expressed here!

    In online seminary, scriptures are *referenced* in the course, but never actually quoted–no word-for-word scriptures ever appear in online seminary classes because all scriptures mentioned within seminary lessons are paraphrased by the course’s authors–it is literal philosophies of men mingled with scripture.

    For Doctrine and Covenants this year the youth learn never learn about female church history figures (unless you count a word or two bashing on Lucy Harris, who wasn’t really the villain the course makes her out to be). We spent three weeks studying Martin Harris and then when we got to DC 25 (not assigned reading, but covered in the online lessons), Emma is mentioned briefly on two slides and then other doctrines are the focus of section 25’s lesson. So basically the youth spend months on end studying just the men in church history. General authority quotes and images appear ten times more often than those of the Lord throughout these courses–it is literal idol worship. Parents need to take a long, hard look at what the church is teaching their youth. They would be really surprised at what they discovered if they did. MormonLeaks really needs to get a hold of a copy of those lessons so everyone can study them–seminary teachers only post 1-2 lessons at a time so it is hard to get a healthy perspective on this otherwise.

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