erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

The whiteboard was a mess.  There were stick figures, arrows, and scribbles that looked more like chicken scratch than an English teacher’s notes.  I tried to draw Lennie, a character from Of Mice and Men, but the blob I actually drew looked much more like a walrus.

“Don’t let my drawings intimidate you,” I told my students.  “Someday, with a little work, your drawings will be as good as mine.”

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 about misfits on the board.

“What else is happening in Crooks’ room?” I asked.

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

“Yes, what is that called?” All year, we discussed people needing community. The class knew where I was headed, and when Heather gave a half-hearted “community” answer, 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 marker, and underneath my drawings wrote in big letters one of Steinbeck’s favorite themes.

“We all need each other—community!”

Then, I put down the marker and made an announcement.

“Ok, for these last five minutes of class,” I shouted, “I need your attention.”

That’s not what I got.

Liam watched John kick Melissa’s foot under the desk, and when Noah unzipped his backpack, a chorus of zippers followed suit. Glaring at some of the “unzippers”, I tried bringing order.

“Nobody is packing up right now. Give me your eyes!” They stopped, and I started talking about the exam coming up.

As I finished the announcement, Diane slipped in through the door in the back. She was one of the deans, and she wasn’t smiling. I figured she was waiting for a student, so I continued talking.

“You’ll have eighty multiple choice questions.”

They all groaned.

“If you study your notes, you’ll do great,” I shouted, pointing to the whiteboard and smiling. With three precious minutes left, I saw Chris—the athletic director—through the door window; his back was 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 used discretion.

“There’s a woman outside your door demanding to see you,” she whispered.  “Erin, she’s recording everything on her phone.”

As she spoke, I could hear the woman yelling in the hallway.

“Stay here until we get her out.” Diane 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 left his place in the hall, closed the door and reached out to give me a fist bump. A police officer took 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 get some quizzes for them. James, a security officer, walked me to my office, and as I walked, 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,” he whispered. “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.

“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 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 felt. The adrenaline—like the shouting—was gone, but what remained was a profound truth. When the mother came grumbling her way to my classroom, people were there for me, heading her off at the pass.

I walked back into my classroom.  The sounds of kids and a woman shouting were gone.  In the silence, I looked back at the whiteboard.  The chicken scratch notes were there with the drawings, and there were the words I had written in big letters.

“We all need each other—community.”

Was it a coincidence those words 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’s 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 real teacher that day, using different pieces of a fifty-two-minute class period and a conflict I would’ve preferred not to face.  He’s the Author, and He cares about the characters in His stories.  His heart is that we know we’re not alone.  There are people He has lovingly placed in our stories to shape and lead us, to bless us, and to remind us He’s there too.  Like the walrus shaped Lennie I drew on the board, I had community, and my God loved me enough to help me see that.

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