erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Last Tuesday, I stood in an empty hallway.  It was the last day of school, a time for teachers to clean up, finish scanning final exams and check out.  The freedom of summer waited just outside our brick building, but I wanted to linger.  Strange, isn’t it?

Part of it’s because I’m just slow.  I tend to take the tortoise’s approach in my race to finish grading.  Maribeth, the very patient data processor, smiles knowingly when I walk through her door.  She knows every year that I’ll be among the last to check out.

But there’s more to my lingering than just being inefficient.  There’s something sacred about silent hallways when school is out.  The lights are all off, leaving the sunlight to reflect off the polished floors.  There are no more lockers slamming closed, bells ringing, announcements on loudspeakers, kids shouting and running through the halls.  There’s no more noise, but as crazy as this may seem, I miss it.  Why?  Because in the midst of all that noise, there’s love.  Being alone in the silence of that building, I guess in a way, I’m saying goodbye to the beauty of that noise.

I can still picture my students’ faces as they sit in my classroom.  Joe leans back in the last row, asking thoughtful questions.  And there’s Jonas, walking from his seat to the podium being brave.  I can still picture Madison walking past my door with an exuberant hello.  Or Kyleem saying “Have a blessed day, Mr. Ahnfeldt” as he gathers his books to leave.

I picture staff as well.  Like Kit stopping everything she’s doing in the hallway to give me a hug.  Or Trent, grabbing my trash and then lingering to talk about faith and purpose in life.

Every school year brings confident hellos in August and heartfelt goodbyes in May.  So many faces go with so many wonderful pieces of a school year that is suddenly over.

Standing there in the silence, I thought of a story my father-in-law likes to tell.  He says that one year he took his kids to Chicago and drove through the neighborhood where he grew up.  When he got to his old house, he and his kids stood outside staring at it when a woman opened the front door.

“Can I help you?”  she asked, probably wondering why people were awkwardly staring at her house.

He explained that he used to live in that house, and then the woman said something that shocked him.

“You must be Mr. Jacobson,” she said.  He hadn’t been back for 40 years, but the woman remembered his name.

That’s the part of the story when tears fill his eyes.  He has to stop telling it for a moment and take a breath.  Just the thought of him and his family being remembered always moves him to tears.

He explained to the woman that he was a little boy in that house, and Mr. Jacobson was his dad.  Then, the woman invited him inside and gave him a tour.  She gave him a chance to do some remembering of his own.

My son, David, just graduated from high school.  I’m saying goodbye to him too, and just like my classroom, I find myself lingering in his room or staring out at the old swing set in our backyard.  I remember him wearing his little denim overalls, and his bowl cut blowing back as he chased his sisters up and down the slide.

“Daddy, wook at my muscles!” he’d shout, rolling back his sleeves, trying to make his voice sound as deep and tough as a 4-year-old could possibly sound.

Now David’s hair is thick and styled.  He’s a man with his his whole life ahead of him, but I find myself tearing up about the little boy with a bowl cut.

I’m a guy who sometimes has a hard time figuring out what I’m feeling.  It’s not like I won’t see my son or my former students ever again.  They’re still around.  David will come home from college, and we’ll have dinner; he’ll talk about his roommates and classes as we pass the potatoes.  My old students will walk by my classroom and wave, knowing I’ll always wave back.

The lump in my throat as I linger in my classroom or think of David with his bowl cut isn’t sadness.  Yes, it’s a way of saying goodbye, but it’s the sort of goodbye we say to a good book we wish wouldn’t end.  We aren’t so much sad about it being over as we are thankful we got to experience it.

That’s what my father-in-law felt.  As he walked through the halls of his old house, his kids following behind, he was remembering a former chapter in his story, and he was thankful.  In fact, his remembering was a way to say “thank you” to the Author who gave it to him, and the tears in his eyes every time he tells that story says more about his gratitude than words ever could.

I think I’ll keep lingering.  Maybe I’ll finish grading earlier and get to Maribeth quicker; she’d probably appreciate that, but I’ll still linger in empty hallways and empty classrooms.

I’ll linger as much as I can, remembering bowl cuts and the good kind of noise where love exists.  Then I’ll remember I’m not alone in the silence, and my lingering will become a prayer.  I’ll think of the Author of my story smiling, savoring the memory of each moment with me—Meghan, my TA, helping Alyssa with her essay, Lem sharing a video he stayed up all night creating, and David shrieking with joy about the crab he caught with a chicken leg.

The Author and I will remember it all together, and I’ll say the words my soul longs to get out.  I’ll whisper “thank you”, knowing He’s listening.  And I’ll turn off the light, gently close the door, and with great anticipation, step into whatever He has next.

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