erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

September was a hard month to be a teacher. Everyone wanted to be back in person, but some of the students apparently forgot how to do that. Deans worked overtime, pulling kids constantly from class for discipline problems. Fighting seemed to be the go-to. One gang related fight broke out at my school that led to a lockdown and a search for trespassers. Police hurried down the halls, followed by administrators carrying walkie-talkies. To be safe, we started checking bags at the door, leading to long lines of eye-rolling students waiting to get to class. Tension climbed, and staff members were asked to be more present than usual in the hallways.

The choices of a few students, like hurricane winds, stirred up a level of anxiety I’d never seen before.

And it only got worse. Tiktok, a social media platform, decided they’d reek a little more havoc. They issued a few distasteful challenges to students, and when people in the district found out, they sent an email to warn us. One morning, I walked into the English Department and Patty was reading the email out loud. Teachers stood around her sipping coffee and reading along:

“September: Vandalize school bathrooms.

October: Smack a staff member.”

“What?!” Betty shouted. “Are you kidding me?” Patty kept reading.

“November: Kiss your friend’s girlfriend at school

December: Deck the halls and show your balls.”

“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” someone said, and a few people laughed. Patty waited and finished the list.

“January: Jab a breast

February: Mess up school signs

March: Make a mess in the courtyard or cafeteria.”

We looked at each other after each one, some of us shaking our heads in disgust and others smiling awkwardly.

“Seriously?” someone said. “That’s out there?”

“Well, I hope a student smacks me,” Debbie said, “That lawsuit could get me some decent money.”

The email wasn’t a joke. Like cattle following a feed truck, kids walked into our bathrooms and ripped out stall doors. Someone tried to pull the sink out of the wall in the upstairs men’s bathroom, breaking pipes and spilling water all over the floor. After a tip from another student, one kid’s backpack was searched; there was an entire soap dispenser stuffed right next to his math book.

Fighting, vandalism, lock-downs—that’s usually the mess of other schools, not mine. But the storm blew its way through the doors of my school, and a question began to swirl around in my heart: What if this doesn’t get better?

One Friday, in the midst of that September storm, my students shared “Instant Replays”. They were invited, just like every Friday, to share words that mean something to them. Participating gets them extra-credit, but it also gives them the chance to be seen. Students approach the podium to share their words, and I spice it up with some “walk-up music”.

It was sixth period, and Jordan raised her hand.

“Here comes Jordan!” I shouted, hitting the play button on YouTube. Ben Rector’s song Brand New came booming through the speakers as she approached the front. She gave a half-hearted smile, and after I faded the music, she unfolded a piece of paper.

“This is hard for me to say,” she said, waiting for strength. “But sometimes I hurt myself.” All side conversations ended as she leaned on the podium.

“My boyfriend wrote me a note when it got really bad.” She was looking down at the note, avoiding eye contact with the rest of the room. The shame of what she was sharing loomed over her like a dark cloud.

“He wrote, ‘Please don’t cut yourself. Please, please stop!’” And when she read those words, she paused. Tears streamed down her face. We waited, but when she put her face in her hands, it was clear she couldn’t continue.

Finally, Brian said something. He’s good at saying things. In fact, he pretty much says whatever’s on his mind—constantly. You’d think that would be annoying, but it’s not. Every word that comes out of his mouth lights up the room. He’s either complimenting a classmate or celebrating life in some way.

“Initiate the hug squad!” he shouted.

In an instant, the room filled with smiles. We all knew what he meant—Mason and Mel were about to give Jordan a hug. They do it every time a student cries. One day, they just got up and stood next to someone who needed some support, and since that day, they haven’t stopped. Jordan usually joins them, but this time, she was on the receiving end.

They leapt out of their seats, offered some Kleenex and gave her a hug, and when the hugs were done, they didn’t leave. They stood by Jordan’s side until she finished. And in that moment, a little sunshine broke through the clouds of our school’s storm.

A few days later, I was walking out of school, headed home. Just past the cafeteria, I saw some students taping colored paper to lockers.

They were signs with messages like, “Bring breakfast for a friend” or “Call a family member instead of texting.” When I looked around, I saw a sign on every other locker in that hallway.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“Our club decided to put up some positive messages,” they said, huge grins growing on their faces.

“Way to go! That’s awesome!” I shouted. Walking away, I felt a brightness in that hallway. The storm was gone. The icy winds of that September storm blew through our school, but those messages hung boldly from lockers like the colored leaves of fall. It was beautiful!

It’s the simple acts of love that end storms–an arm around a shoulder, a listening ear, some warm words from a friend. My students remind me every day that love is so much more than feelings. Feelings lie; they’re up and then they’re down, but choosing to love through actions brings hope. A man very familiar with storms once wrote, “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). The kids in the hallway may not have known, but with every message taped up on those lockers, the winds of anxiety and chaos were being driven away. There’s power in love, and like the “hug squad”, you and I can be the vehicles through whom that power moves.

That’s all for today! Do you like these stories? A great way you could show your appreciation is by forwarding this email to someone else who might enjoy them. Or did someone forward this to you? Sign up here to get a story like this one twice a month. Thank you for your support!