erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Why do I still love teaching? Because kids still surprise me. It didn’t take long this year. The first day I stepped back into school was to help freshmen register. A little chaotic? Definitely, yes! A scenario filled with glimpses of beauty? Also, a resounding yes!

There were parents and little, adolescent people everywhere. Lines formed in the auditorium for student IDs and at the library for computers. Familiar staff members stopped briefly to talk in the halls and then helped manage the crowds. After a long 2 years of online learning and social distancing, it was good to finally see all that isolation get a good kick in the butt.

Charlie waited in line. His mom was standing next to him and handed me his permission forms and technology contracts. The signatures and initials were in the right places, so I gave him the blue rubber stamp of approval and waited for the next freshman. I was done with Charlie, but he wasn’t done with me.

“Did you know the Dollar Store got robbed?” he asked. His question surprised me. He wasn’t like his peers–head down, avoiding eye contact. When he asked, I could tell by the inflection in his voice and his mom’s patient smile that he struggled intellectually more than most, but he didn’t seem to care. He was happy.

“No. I didn’t know that,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Charlie!” he shouted with a smile. “Yeah, a man had a gun, and my mom and I found out ‘cause we went there that same day.” He kept going. He wanted me to know what he and his mom were buying that day at the store, how far away he lived, where they went before they came to school, and the names of each of the people in his family. Life exploded out of him. As he talked, he used his hands like a conductor in a symphony, and his eyes looked straight into mine. We were strangers, but he treated me like his best friend.

Then, along came Kenny. He was getting ready to walk down the stairs right passed Charlie and I. His right leg bent way too far into his left, bowing in a way that completely changed his gait, and his right hand was twisted awkwardly. Still, he carried his own laptop and paperwork, hobbling across the tile floor, dragging that right foot. I heard him before I saw him.

“Hi Charlie!” he said, his voice filled with delight. I turned and saw him struggling with his computer and pile of papers.

“Hi Kenny!” Charlie said, pausing his speech to smile at his friend. As they spoke, the line of parents and their freshmen stopped talking. Something beautiful was happening, and nobody wanted to miss it. I assumed the two must’ve known each other from an 8th grade special education class, and I wondered how long they’d been in school together. Like everyone else, I was caught up in what I was seeing, but then as Kenny took his first step down the stairs, reality brought me back.

“Do you want some help with that?” I asked. I was a stranger and an adult asking a teenager if he needed help. Most kids would pass, but Kenny slowly looked at his laptop, looked back at me and then said, “Yes please.” The innocence in his voice was refreshing; it brought a softness that smoothed over the rough chaos of the morning.

He handed me his things, and we walked down the stairs together, slowly, one step at a time. When we got to the bottom, I saw his dad. He had been walking so far ahead of Kenny, I didn’t even know he was there. I could see he was embarrassed watching Kenny and I come down the stairs together.

“I’ll take that,” he whispered, reaching for the computer and papers I was holding. There was no conversation.

“Have a nice day!” I said, but neither of them looked back. Dad wanted out of there, and Kenny needed to keep up.

Right now in my English classes, we’re talking about pennies. Annie Dillard writes about them in in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and she uses them to symbolize the little things we should appreciate. Sunrises, squirrels, a smile, the sound of a gurgling stream—these are all things we’re often too busy to notice. Like forgotten, valueless pennies, we can walk past them, or like Dillard challenges her readers to do, we could “see” them. We could celebrate them by delighting in the beautiful fact that they exist.

Kenny and Charlie were pennies. They offered glimpses of the grit and beauty of their Creator. I heard it in the softness of Kenny’s voice despite his disability, and I saw it in Charlie’s smile as he talked with his hands. Despite the chaos of that day, everyone standing in line found wonder in their innocence. We found a moment to breathe, to smile.

Before you start thinking, Way to go, Erin, you really noticed those boys! you need to know that moment wasn’t completely altruistic. It wasn’t just about me seeing the boys. It was also about receiving a message. In A Five for Fighting song called “If God Made You”, John Ondrasik sings, “If God made you, He’s in love with me.” The people around us, even strangers, are not random bodies we bump into every now and then. They’re specially delivered messages to us. Why do I get to hang out with my wife every day? Why does Trent walk in my classroom to wipe down the desks and take out the trash? Why did I meet Kenny and Charlie?

When we celebrate the people in our lives like pennies picked up off the ground, we offer love, but we also open up the mailboxes of our hearts to receive it. We can look into those human eyes looking back at us, listen to their sweet voices smoothing over all the rough, and discover it’s true—there’s an Author who loves us, and He fills our stories with beautiful people to show us just how far that love goes. They’re messages from Him. All we need to do is take the time to open them.

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