erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

February was cold, and not just because of the freezing temperatures.  A student at our school died last month in a car accident, so her friends never got to say goodbye.   School counselors visited classrooms to help, and there were tears, but nothing could keep the winds of loneliness and grief from blowing through our hallways.  That kind of cold is worse than any frigid, parking lot walk through the slush in the morning.

Those arctic winds of loneliness drove Jalon to the podium in my classroom.  He asked if he could read a poem he wrote, and being his English teacher, I couldn’t wait to hear it. I hyped up his moment, playing some Taylor Swift as he walked to the front of the room.

He was visibly nervous.  His hands trembled, but he wore a smile anyway.

“I wrote this last night,” he announced, “but it’s sad, okay, so be ready.”

He took a deep breath and started reading.  Nobody expected what came next. Every word coated the classroom in an icy glaze that stunned all of us.

“I will never be good enough,” he wrote.  “Everyone would be happier if I was gone.”

When he finished, nobody said a word.  I struggled with what to say.

“See, I told you it was sad,” he said apologetically.

“Thank you for being honest, Jalon.  That took courage,” I said at last, “but you wrote this last night?”

He nodded, smiling like he had just read a page from Winnie the Pooh, but I had more questions.

“So all that stuff is inside you right now?”

He nodded again.

“Do you know how important you are to all of us?”

“It’s okay,” he said, sitting down, trying to escape the spotlight.

Later, I pulled him out of social studies.  He assured me he wasn’t planning to hurt himself, but I told him I had to tell his counselor.

“You need to know you matter!” I whispered to him.

He looked at me and smiled.

“Can I give you a hug?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, and after we hugged, he walked back into class.

Throughout this frigid February, my students and I have been reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and it captures so much of what my students and I face.  His characters deal with emptiness, wearing masks, and even suicide, but one of his characters, Clarisse, is different than all the rest.  There’s a light in her eyes, and Bradbury compares it to a candle.

Call it whatever you will, but I’ve seen that same light in some of my students.  They’ve been the candles, warm and welcoming, offering light in the midst of the cold darkness.

The day before Jalon shared his poem, I asked one of my classes if anyone had “good things” to share.

Brianne raised her hand and shared about the girls’ playoff game coming up.

Ryan shared about a positive change he made to a workout routine.

And then Max raised his hand.

He changed his pronouns years ago from “she” to “he”, and when I mix them up, even into second semester, he just smiles and says, “That’s okay, Mr. Ahnfeldt.”

He plays his ukulele in class sometimes, and in middle school, he was bullied.

“Go ahead, Max,” I said.

He looked over at Kendi before he spoke.

“I was sitting outside waiting for my dad,” he said, a big smile growing on his face, “and Kendi came and talked with me.”

Everyone looked over at Kendi.  She was looking down at her desk, acting shy even though she’s definitely not.  She’s involved in her church and likes to announce to her classmates that they’re loved.

We waited for her response.

“It was freezing,” Kendi said with a smile.  Everyone laughed, and then she made a heart with her hands to Max.  I watched him light up looking over at Kendi, and I could tell he saw in Kendi what we all saw—the warm light of a candle.

Earlier in the month, students in one of the school clubs decided to make valentines for every student in the school.  They attached a student’s name and a piece of candy to two thousand red hearts.

Valentine’s Day came, and the teacher sponsor couldn’t be there.  She arranged for club members to pass out valentines, but for whatever reasons, most of them weren’t there either.

All except Lilly.

She ran into my classroom with a basketful of red hearts and candies.

“Good morning, Mr. Ahnfeldt!” she said, breathing hard.

Lilly and I go way back.  She was a sophomore in my class with a tender heart, and now that she’s a senior, she’s become a leader people want to follow.

“Mrs. Montag and I are passing out baskets,” she said, taking another breath.  She handed me a basket and pointed at it.  “If you’re missing any valentines for your students, let me know and I’ll bring more.”

Then she ran out the door, heading off to deliver more baskets with Mrs. Montag (who volunteered to help), and by the end of the morning, every teacher had baskets.

Mission accomplished!

The students who got valentines that day had no idea Lilly was behind it all.  She wouldn’t get any votes for student council, and it wouldn’t make her look better on a transcript, but kids were loved, and you know what—that’s all that mattered to her.

My school may feel at times like an ice-cold February, but that’s when love offers the most warmth.  Lilly and Kendi carry their candlelight, like baskets of valentines, to people who need it most.  People may wonder about the source of that light, and I think I have an answer.  Bradbury wasn’t the only one to compare people to candlelight.  Jesus talked about it too, and He told anyone who followed Him to let it shine (Matthew 5:14-16).

That light burns inside students like Kendi and Lilly, and they don’t keep it for themselves.  As the winds of loneliness and despair pick up, instead of running for shelter to wait out the storm, they step into it.  They move into the cold to sit with a friend and come early to school to deliver notes.  They’re my heroes, and it’s through them I’m learning to love.

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