erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Jeremy looked down at his phone, sitting in the back of room 212, his brow furrowed.  He had no words for anyone.  His classmates busily flipped through notes one last time and practiced reciting their poems.  From my perspective sitting at my desk, Jeremy looked checked out, like he didn’t need anyone. And what’s worse, he probably believed even if he was in need, nobody would care.

Being relatively new to school, Jeremy felt alone, and this was our last day together.  The class would never again hear me tell Jalen for the fortieth time to sit in his assigned seat, or hear Jason argue with Jose about how he could school him in basketball.  There’d be no more discussions about prepositional phrases or what crossing the river represents in Fahrenheit 451.

The only trouble was Jeremy had his own river to cross, and it looked impossible.  In his mind, he was about to fail the literature final, but the poetry presentation brought the real troubled waters.  He’d rather die than stand in front of all those people he hardly knew reciting some dumb poem.  So how would he cross that river?  His decision—he just wouldn’t try.

The students were supposed to recite the poems they either memorized or wrote on their own.  When they finished, they’d take the written portion of the final.

Jose raised his hand.

“Come on up, Jose!” I shouted.  He sauntered up in his Jordans, turned his Nuggets hat backwards to get the right look and handed me his poem—Mother to a Son by Langston Hughes.  Looking straight ahead, he started reciting, and he nailed it!  From first to last, every line was perfect!

Then Braden came up and recited a poem about sunsets.  When he finished, he breathed a huge sigh of relief, folded up his paper and smiled all the way back to his desk.  The wild river was being crossed.  They were doing it!

When I called on Lilly, she shook her head no, her desperate eyes pleading with me.  She had nothing prepared.

“Lilly, I’ve got an idea,” I said.  “Why don’t you read a poem I give to you.  If you do that, I’ll still give you half credit.”  She thought about it for a second and then walked to the front.  Everyone clapped for her, and I handed her the poem.

She read in whispers without eye contact, but she did it, and I wrote 25 out of 50 points in the gradebook.

“Okay Jeremy, it’s your turn,” I proclaimed, smiling at him.

Taking his cue from Lilly, he also shook his head no.

“It’s okay Jeremy, you can still get half credit if you read this poem.”  I held up the paper with the poem.

Again, he shook his head no.

“Are you sure you just want to take a zero?” I asked.  “That’s one third of your final.”

“I’m about to fail the literature part anyway,” he said.  “And I’ll probably fail this class.”

He wanted to give up, and it pissed me off.  Everyone saw what Lilly did.

Oh well, I thought, if that’s how he wants to play this.  I cut Jeremy lose—more out of frustration than anything—and I moved on.

“Who’s next?”  I looked at the list.  “How about you, Alyssa?”  She grabbed her paper and walked to the podium.  Then, someone spoke up from the back.  It was Jose in the Nuggets hat.

“Listen, Jeremy,” he said scooting one desk closer, “even if you fail, you wanna get at least a 40% so you can take summer school.”  Jose wasn’t going to let this go, even if I was.  He looked at Jeremy for a second, letting the words soak in.  “Just read the poem!”

“And how many journals do you have?” Taya asked.

“Thirty eight,” Jeremy said.

“Seriosly!” she shouted.  “You have 38?  So do two more and you’ll get a B on your notebook.”

Alyssa stood at the podium, still waiting to speak, but she was smiling.  Neither of us could stop marveling at the beauty of the moment.

“Yeah,” Autumn shouted from two seats down, “write about your goals this summer and some person who inspired you.  That journal grade is like 10%.”

Jalen decided to get in on the action.

“What’s your grade right now?” he asked.

Jeremy looked at his phone to check, and Jose leaned in close to take a peek.

“A 66%!!!” Jose shouted, lifting the front end of his desk and slamming it down.

“You’re kidding me!” Jalen shouted.  “You can pass this class!”

I looked over at the students on the other side of the room.  They were staring at what was happening—wide-eyed and smiling—like little kids watching colorful fireworks.

Eventually, we all noticed Alyssa waiting, and she shared her poem.  She read it beautifully and sat down.

“What do you think Jeremy?” I asked, holding up the poem.  “Do you want to give it a try?”

“Come on, bro, you got this!” Jalen shouted.  We all waited as he looked at the paper I was holding and looked back down at his desk.

Then, suddenly, Jeremy pushed himself up out of his seat and walked to the podium.

Everyone cheered.

“We’re behind you, Jeremy!” Jose shouted.

The reading wasn’t some impressive rhythmic oration; it was quiet and quick. . .

But he did it!

And as soon as he did, the class once again erupted in applause.

I wrote down a 25 out of 50, and Jeremy passed the class.  Calculating the grades later, I realized If he hadn’t read his poem, he would’ve failed.

Over and over, I see kids lost in the floodwaters of anxiety and loneliness, but in room 212 that day, the whitewater dried up in the sunshine of hope.  Watching my students clap and cheer over Jeremy’s success, I couldn’t stop smiling. There was a brightness in my classroom, and it wasn’t just because summer was coming.  When Jeremy faced a wild river of anxiety, his classmates looked beyond themselves and built a bridge.  They got their classmate safely across and, in the process, learned something much more valuable than any answer on a test; they learned to love–teaching me what that looks like–and I couldn’t have been more proud.

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