erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Harley raised her hand and asked if she could say something. She walked to the front of the classroom and, leaning into the podium, waited for the zipping backpacks and conversation to settle.

“There’s this fear we have,” she said. “We think if we share our problems, we’ll be a burden.” As she spoke, all eyes were on her. Not on cell phones. Not on the clock. Not on the cute boy sitting in front.

“So we do what we think is being strong; we pretend.”

She breathed deep, looking at all of us. “But we’re not a burden,” she said. “We’re broken, and that’s okay.”

When she went back to her seat, nobody spoke. Her words dripped with truth, and it stirred something deep inside us.

Most teachers will tell you, if you give students the stage, they have much more to teach us than we could ever teach them, and that was certainly the case with Harley.

I’ll admit; I’m a pretender. Being a teacher, it’s kind of my job to put on a smile and perform. I’m doing an act, being the positive, even a little crazy, English teacher who loves grammar and Shakespeare. But students like Harley are teaching me to be real. They’re teaching me to not only let people see the cracks but to celebrate them. Why? Because even in all that brokenness, there’s beauty.

In one of the last assignments we did this year, nobody was pretending. We wrote a sentence copying Martin Luther King Jr.’s writing style. I put one of his sentences on the screen:

Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

After we talked about it, everyone created their own versions of it, adding similes, imagery and prepositional phrases in the same spots where he did. There may have been a little eye-rolling at the beginning, but once they got started, they were having fun; they were coming out from hiding, and they liked it.

Their homework was to display the sentences they created with creative backgrounds that brought them to life, and what they brought back a few days later felt almost sacred, like an original van Gogh someone stumbled upon in an attic. It was so good, I set up galleries around school and made my classes do tours.

“Find one that really moves you,” I told them, “and take a picture.” We took our time, talking about each one as we sipped our Capri Suns and munched on some chips, better options than wine and cheese, and when we were done, I had them write about the one that moved them most.

“What did you write about?” I asked.

Kenzie raised her hand. She was never afraid of going first.

“I liked Lilly’s,” she said. “This past year has been hard. Doing school from home, quarantines, having to wear these stupid masks; it’s all been tough.” She smiled at Lilly and finished her thought. “But Lilly’s painting reminded me of what gets me through. Without God, I would’ve been lost.” Lilly looked at her and smiled back.

Next it was Sarah’s turn.

“I picked that watercolor one with the trees.” Looking over at Kenzie, she said, “This year really has been hard, and through all this mess, my friends have been there for me.” She looked back down at her journal. “I guess the one good thing about COVID is that it’s taught me to value the people around me.” There were more hands.

Jenna had been looking down at her desk. When she raised her hand, her eyes were pensive. There was something weighing on her.

“Go ahead Jenna,” I said, pointing at her.

“You know that one with the broken glass?” she asked. Everyone was listening. Something about her tone had all of us on the edge of our seats, and we nodded our heads.

“I can relate to that. It’s not that I have a terrible life or anything, but COVID and some stuff with my family. . .” She paused, gathering up some strength. “It can all just feel like too much. I guess I feel broken like that glass.” She finished and the class was quiet.

“There are other people in here who feel just like you,” I said, almost whispering.

She smiled.

“Thank you for having the courage to share.” After she gave me a quiet nod, I waited for more hands.

“Can I say something?” Kay asked. She was sitting in the back with her computer open. Nobody expected her to say anything because she wasn’t a kid. She was an adult, co-teaching with me to support the struggling kids on her caseload, and her gentle voice was calming.

“The one with the hands really touched me,” she said. She read the sentence out loud.

When she finished reading, she waited to keep from crying.

“A few years ago, I lost my son, and when he was gone, he took a part of me with him.” The tears started to come, and she took off her glasses to wipe her eyes.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him.”

Everyone looked over at her, thankful for this woman who had done so much for all of us despite the trials in her life.

Then I stood up in front of the class. “Do you guys see what you’ve done?” I said. “How your words and your artwork can move people?” Nobody had anything to say. Their classmates’ words, Kay’s words, like little bits of sunshine, were bringing life to their weary hearts.

Harley was right. As we take off our COVID masks, maybe we could take off the other masks we hide behind, the ones with the fake smiles and the perfect social media pictures. Sharing our brokenness is never a burden, and pretending to be perfect is never attractive. We’re all a little broken, and that’s okay. It’s more than okay—it brings color to the canvas of our lives. When we share the broken pieces of us, hearts open up, people discover they’re not alone, and we all reach out for love. That’s where hope is found, and that’s where our brokenness is transformed into something beautiful.

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