erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

The whiteboard was covered in what looked more like chicken scratch than an English teacher’s notes. There were stick figures, arrows, and some scribbles that barely looked like words. I like to draw when I give notes, and I joke with my students to not let my drawings intimidate them. “Someday, with a little work,” I told them as I drew what looked more like a walrus than Lennie from Of Mice and Men, “your drawings will be as good as mine.” The kids laughed and rolled their eyes. We were drawing Lennie, Candy, and Curley’s wife hanging out in Crook’s room. “What is Steinbeck trying to tell us here,” I asked.

Jared’s hand shot up. “They’re all misfits!” he shouted.

“Say that louder, Jared,” I said, running to my computer. I had Rudolph’s visit to the Island of Misfit Toys cued up on Youtube and played a quick snippet. Some of the kids must have thought I belonged on that island. I wrote Jared’s comment on the board and asked, “What else is happening in Crooks’ room?”

Heather responded, “Are they realizing they need each other?”

“Yes, what is that called?” All year, we had talked about people needing community. The class knew where I was headed, and when Heather gave a half-hearted “community”, I ran to her desk and gave her a fist bump, a little more germ free than a high-five. I grabbed my red Expo, and underneath my drawings, wrote, “We all need each other—community!”

“Ok, for the last five minutes, I am going to need your complete attention.” Liam was watching John kick Melissa’s foot under the desk, and when Noah started to unzip his backpack, a chorus of zippers followed suit. Glaring at some of the “unzippers”, I said, “Nobody is packing up right now. Give me your eyes!” They stopped, and I started talking about the short answers they would see on the exam the next day. One of the deans, Diane, slipped in through the door in the back of the room. She wasn’t smiling, and I figured one of the kids was in trouble. When I told the class the exam would have eighty multiple choice questions, they groaned.

“If you’ve taken good notes and study them, you’ll do great,” I shouted, pointing to the whiteboard and smiling. With three precious minutes left, we talked about the journals they were writing. That’s when I saw Chris, the athletic director, through the door window, his back pressed up against the glass. “They must REALLY want somebody,” I thought. Diane’s eyes were fixed on me. She needed to see me, and time was ticking away. Ah, the challenges of teaching.

The bell rang, and I dismissed the students. Chris was holding the door, ushering out each kid, and Diane made her way through the river of people. “What’s going on?” I asked.

With students still lingering, she whispered, “There’s a woman outside your door demanding to see you. Erin, she is recording everything on her phone.” As she was talking, I could hear the woman yelling in the hallway. Diane continued, “Stay here until we get her out of the building.” She told me the woman was the foster mother of one of my struggling students and finished with a question: “Do you know why she’s upset?” I had no idea. With the last student gone, Chris closed the door and reached out to give me a fist bump. A police officer stood in his place.

“Thanks for your help,” I said. Adrenaline pulsed through my body. I felt like I had downed three cans of Mountain Dew. Security opened the door for kids who needed help, and I asked if I could go get some quizzes. James, my security officer, walked me to my office, and colleagues, drawn by the screams, offered sympathetic smiles.

Another smile met me in the hallway. It was Kevin, my principal. “You okay?” he asked. I nodded. “Erin, we’ve got Mrs. Brown downstairs. I told her, ‘You can go to my office and wait to talk with Mr. Ahnfeldt or we could have this gentleman arrest you.’” He pointed to where officer Shipley had been standing, and I laughed. “You must feel like some kind of movie star!” he said, patting me on the back.

When we got to his office, we all found a seat. Taking a breath, I looked at Mrs. Brown and said, “I understand you wanted to see me.” The understatement made it easier to smile. The conversation was quick. She wanted an essay packet, and I handed it to her, explaining that her son just needed to ask for it. After some polite goodbyes, the meeting was over, but Kevin kept me in his office to see how I was doing. I was fine, but as he pointed out, the desperate mom and her son were not. After 5 suspensions, her son was struggling, and she felt helpless. The shouting was not personal. It was desperation.

Walking upstairs from Kevin’s office, it was hard to sort out what I was feeling. The adrenaline was gone with the shouting, but what remained was a profound truth. When the mother came grumbling her way to my classroom, there were people there to head her off at the pass. James even offered to stay late with me. I told him I felt safe, but he walked away reluctantly still feeling like he should walk me to my car. Is it a coincidence that the words, “We all need each other—community” were written on the white board behind me as 6 people stood like a stone wall in front of a desperate mother? Probably not. There is this funny phrase I use to challenge my students. I tell them to “Listen to life.” God speaks to us through it. He was the teacher that day, using different pieces of a fifty-two-minute class period to help me see Him through people who often feel more like “family” than colleagues. Like Him, the people I relied on for support had my back when I needed it most, even before I knew I needed it. And just like the walrus shaped Lennie I drew on the board, I had community, and there is a God who loves me enough to help me see that.

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