erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Sara fell asleep in class.

Everyone could see into her little square as she wiggled her way into the perfect reclining position. She rested her head on her pillow, one of the perks of online learning, and watched me drone on about “diction” and “rhetorical strategies”. Then, in the middle of a discussion about why “abandon” is a stronger word than “leave”, it was clear Sara had abandoned all of us. She was gone, off in a better place where screens aren’t screaming for our attention and life is normal again.

“Saaaraaaaa,” I whispered into the screen, trying to be gentle. “Sara, are you still with us?” If anyone hadn’t noticed yet, they could see now, Sara was definitely NOT with us. This was a first for me. I’ve had students fall asleep in class, but never that completely out. The class ended, and I waved goodbye to my students as their little squares disappeared with digitized chirps. Everyone left the meeting until it was just Sara and I.

She looked so peaceful, but yikes! Who wants their teacher watching them sleep? Well aware of the creepiness of the situation, I went through my options. I could just click “End Meeting”, or, because she’d probably appreciate knowing her homework, I could wake her. That second option seemed more thoughtful, so I screamed into the screen, “Saaaaaraaaaa!” Nothing. “Saaaaaraaaa!” I shouted again, this time clapping my hands. Nothing. Only a slight change in breathing, but the breathing steadied, and she was back in REM world. It was useless. Finally, I whispered, like someone at the bedside of a patient in a coma, “Sara, I’m going to end the meeting now. You can email me if you have questions.” Beep. I turned off the meeting, and she was gone.

Honestly, I don’t blame Sara. What person in this world, especially over the past few weeks, hasn’t felt the urge to shut their eyes and sleep it all away? With forests burning, a pandemic taking lives and isolating people, riots happening all over the country, political and racial division tearing our country apart, and schools going online, life just feels heavy.

Over the past few days, my students and I have been talking about a book by Jane McGonigal called Reality is Broken. Her premise is that real life has been so unattractive that people are going to virtual worlds “in droves”. During our discussion, Katie raised her hand. “May I say something?” she asked.

“Go ahead, Katie.” I looked for her square, trying to see her face while she talked.

“I really like McGonigal’s last line that says, ‘We are starving, and our games are feeding us.”’ Heads were nodding in the other squares, and she continued. “That word ‘starving’ really emphasizes her idea that we all want something more, and this world just isn’t offering it.” She was right, and everyone in the class knew it.

Katie’s point reminded me of a quote Justin shared the week before. He wanted to earn a little extra credit, so when the opportunity came, he volunteered.

“Can I share a quote?” he asked. His voice was deep and tired.

“Sure Justin. Can you turn on your screen?” He was hesitant, but the white screen with his initials went away, and a dark room replaced it. I could barely see his face.

Then he dropped his quote on all of us: “Dying on the inside, but looking brave on the outside.” When he finished, there was a pause. Nobody said anything. The despair in the quote and the darkness in his room was everything Katie was talking about. We’re all starving. Sara’s sleep and the virtual world McGonigal writes about are fast becoming much more appealing than anything life seems to offer.

After school, I was tired. Sitting in my desk chair for three 90-minute classes takes its toll on my back and my energy. I was drudging through emails when Debbie walked in speaking through her mask. “Erin, would you mind talking to a student about Young Life?” I nodded, and when I started to get up, she finished her thought. “She lost her mom last year and seems like she’s struggling.”

“Sure,” I said, following Debbie to her computer.

She talked to the girl on the screen. “Jahaun, this is Mr. Ahnfeldt. He can tell you about Young Life.”

The student on the screen shouted, “Mr. Ahnfeldt!!” and when I got closer, I recognized her. Jahaun was my student last year. She was waving, and a bright smile was spreading across her face.

“Hey Jahaun!” I yelled back. Her smile was contagious, and the weariness that hung over me as I walked up to that computer was gone. We talked about her mom, about the writing she’s doing to remember her, and about Young Life. Neither of us could stop smiling. Tears started to come, but I choked them back.

Emily Dickinson writes,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

This may sound strange, but as Jahaun and I talked, I could almost hear that “thing with feathers” singing, filling Debbie’s office. It was hope. More than Pink or Maroon 5, it was the music that every student is “starving” to hear. It’s the thing this world can’t offer, the tune with the only power to wake students like Sara from their sleepy escape.

Jahaun and I waved goodbye, and I walked back to my office, still smiling. Sitting down wasn’t easy. My feet wanted to dance. I wanted to shout, “YES!”, but people were still getting work done. I had to move, so I looked through my doorway, checking to see if anyone was looking, and pounded the air like a giddy drummer playing along to the song. There was a tune being sung at the center of my soul. Like the sound of my dad’s whistling, it was familiar and warm, something I’ve known all along but forgot was there. The Composer of the tune and the Creator of that “thing with feathers” saw me in the dark and offered some help. One conversation with a student, one smile, and I could hear the song again.