erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Going into my first day with a class full of freshmen, I told myself, “Suck it up, Erin. You can do this.” My approach at first was to survive, especially since that class wasn’t an English class. It was “homeroom”—a place for them to hear announcements, get help with homework, and find some community. There’s no grammar or John Steinbeck for me to hide behind. My only job is to somehow make it meaningful. . .twice a week. . . for an hour and a half. Yikes!

What I’ve found is completely the opposite of what I expected. Yes, the kids in that class do have normal hormones exploding inside them, making them more like popcorn in a frying pan than human beings, but they’re also full of beautiful surprises.

Last Friday, I was surfing through YouTube hoping to find a video that might inspire them. I’ve been writing in my book about students believing their lives are ordinary, so I thought maybe I’d do a little case study. I typed into the search bar, “Using our talents,” and a video popped up that said, “Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.” It was only four minutes long, so I clicked on it.

The video opens with a boy and some chalk. He’s drawing what looks like a hopscotch cross on the pavement. As he draws, his mind goes to a memory of him sitting at the table. His parents are screaming at one another. They eventually shout at him, and he wakes up from his thoughts. He’s back on the pavement holding his chalk, and when he finishes his drawing, he starts dancing. Beautiful music plays as he dances on the squares, but the dancing continues to get interrupted by flashbacks to difficult pieces of his life. In one moment, kids tease him in class. In another moment, he gets pushed against a brick wall by a group of laughing boys. Still, despite the storms in his life, he keeps dancing.

“This is perfect,” I thought, and I typed some questions to go with it. The class started, and I played the video. The freshmen watched, and I could tell by their silence that their hearts felt what the kid in the video was feeling. It mattered to them.

When it was over, I asked, “Does anyone want to share a talent they have with the class right now?” I was definitely going way out on a limb. At first, they all looked at me with blank stares. Pointing at the students on the screen and the ones in the classroom, I got a little louder and added, “And you can’t say you don’t have a talent because you all have something to offer.”

It was quiet at first, so I gave them suggestions of talents they might have. Then Aniece raised her hand. She was sitting on her bed. “What do you have for us, Aniece?” She reached for a painting. It was beautiful, with snow-capped mountains and a green meadow. She even described it for us.

“I wish I was there,” she said, smiling.

“Why?” I asked.

“Things are just hard right now.” Other kids on the screen and in the classroom were nodding their heads. They felt it too. When she was done, there were more hands. Nyjouk shared a pattern she drew in her notebook. Meghan smiled proudly as she held up her taekwondo medal, and Kacey opened her sketchbook to show everyone her drawing of a woman smoking a cigarette. The woman in the drawing was tired. There was a struggle in her eyes, probably the same struggle that made Aneice so ready to visit those mountains she painted. Finally, Delaini raised her hand.

“Go ahead Delaini.”

She spoke softly. “I volunteer with the kids at my church.” The words came slow. Each one was thoughtful, coming from her heart. “This is a picture of one of the kids I work with.” She held it up. It was a picture of a little boy sitting with his back to the camera on the floor. “He’s got an attachment disorder, so he gets scared with lots of people.” A smile started to form on her face when she finally said, “But he knows me, so when I’m there, he feels safe.”

A couple of days went by, and that moment came rushing back to me while I was sitting in church. One of the pastors, Suzie, was using 1 Peter 4 to talk about suffering, and midway through the sermon, she shared this verse: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (vs. 10). In the middle of all those verses about suffering, God says, “Use your gifts.” The timing of that verse right after what happened in class on Friday was too perfect to be a coincidence. I thought of the boy dancing on the chalk squares, and I thought of my students. Each of them have tasted their own kind of suffering. There was suffering in the eyes of the woman Kacey drew. It was in the fear of the boy Delaini comforts at church, and it’s what fuels Aneice’s desperation to be in those mountains she painted. It’s in the isolation, the anxiety and the despair all around us, and honestly, it’s sucking the life out of me.

There are days, more often now than before, that I don’t want to use my gifts. Retreating to my couch sounds much more appealing than sitting in front of a screen to greet my students or write another blog. But God used the freshmen in that class to invite me to dance. Despite the storms around them, they’ve chosen to draw, to ask thoughtful questions, and to comfort friends. They’re using their talents to bring beauty, a beauty that offers glimpses of God’s grace. The rain will continue to pour down, but like the boy in the video, they’re finding a way to dance, and I want to dance with them.

That’s all for today!

One of my greatest joys in life is to use words to encourage. I hope to do that with these stories, and someday soon with a book. If you think others might be encouraged by these words, please consider sharing this on Facebook or forwarding it to a friend. And if someone sent this to you, you can sign up here to get these stories twice a month. Thank you for your support!