erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Stories have power. Whether they’re told along the sea of Galilea or shared around a crackling campfire, they move us—even shape us.

As an English teacher, my job is filled with stories. They’re the tools my students and I use to “listen to life”. But the most precious ones aren’t written in words on a page; they’re spoken.

Patty is one of the best story-tellers I know. We teach together, so we’re “colleagues”, but we’re friends first, and I love the way she feels life so profoundly. While listening to coworkers share about broken students or when she’s telling a story about her dad, tears will form in her eyes. She can’t help it. When she listens, she’s completely present, and when she tells a story, she does it with all her heart.

Every year, as winter approaches, Patty and I are usually finishing up John Steinbeck’s book Of Mice and Men. We both love teaching it because it’s a story that captures every student’s heart. It’s got everything. There’s an adorable giant of a man named Lennie who loves soft things, like rabbits and puppies. There’s beauty in the California landscape with the golden Gabilan mountains. And there’s the tension that Curley brings every time he steps into a scene. Most of all, there’s a dream of a better place, and someday, George tells Lennie, they’ll be there.

(Spoiler Alert: I’m about to give away the end of the book)

By the time we get to the end of the book, all the students have fallen in love with Lennie. But there’s one big problem. He’s going to die. I won’t tell you how—I’ll at least leave that part for you to read and discover on your own—but it’s going to happen, and although Lennie doesn’t have a clue, his best friend George knows.

George doesn’t want Lennie to be scared, so he talks to him about how they’ll always have each other, about the “little place” they’re going to get with a cow and some chickens, and about the rabbits. “Ever’body gonna be nice to you,” George says, and a moment later, still dreaming about rabbits, Lennie dies.

Patty has read that ending to her students at least a hundred times. She’s watched tears form in their eyes, and she’s cried with them. But one year, after Patty and I finished walking our classes through that final scene, we were sitting in her office, and she asked me, “Can I tell you a story?”

“Yes please!” I said, and with that, she looked at me with those gentle eyes, and told me a story I’ll never forget.

Years before we ever taught together, Patty was standing in front of one of her classes. They just finished reading the final page from Of Mice and Men, and the kids needed to talk. In the midst of their tears and questions, something caught her by surprise.

She remembered her last night with her mom.

A choice presented itself—stuff the memory and move on with class or share the story and risk stirring up some hard emotions.

Stuffing is easier. But sharing the memory would highlight the beauty of that last scene in the book, so she looked her students in the eyes, took a deep breath and started storytelling.

I wasn’t in her class, but when she first mentioned a hospital room and sitting at her mom’s bedside, I imagine the students got quiet.

“My mom was afraid to fall asleep,” she told them. “She worried that if she fell asleep, she’d never wake up.”

Fear filled that hospital room like a heavy fog, so Patty whispered a suggestion.

“Mom, why don’t we remember some of the good times together?”

They sat in the quiet of that room and waited. And slowly, like sunlight breaking through that fog, the memories started to come.

They talked about the vacation to Hawaii that was well worth all the saving. They talked about the night it was so cold that Mom actually let the Beagles sleep inside.

When Patty brought up the Sunday School class, they remembered the song her mom taught them, and the two of them sang it together:

“Zacheus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he. . .”

Mother and daughter sat together, treasuring each memory as it came. And the fogginess of fear hanging over that room began to fade.

Patty paused for a moment, looking at her students. She got through telling most of her story, but she knew the hardest part was finishing it.

The gathering of memories and the talking began to settle in that hospital room, and Patty’s mom turned to her daughter. With a weak smile, she whispered, “Honey, I’m ready to go to sleep now.”

As soon as Patty spoke those words to her class, she had to stop. The tears clouding her eyes started streaming down her face. She waited a moment, reaching for some Kleenex.

At first, I’m sure the students didn’t know what to do.

Patty stood alone in front of that class—a little girl missing her mom—as the students looked on in silence. But she wasn’t alone long.

A few brave students suddenly got up. With soft smiles, they moved toward her. A few more followed, and then, before Patty could gather herself, she was surrounded by the entire class.

“Group hug,” someone shouted, and they pressed in awkwardly, giggling and smiling. Like a warm blanket, the whole class wrapped Patty up in their love.

Sitting in that office chair, listening to Patty’s story, I didn’t know what to say.

“Erin,” she said, “I think the idea to talk through those memories with my mom came from that last scene in Of Mice and Men.

I nodded my head, still savoring the picture of that giant group hug.

“Stories shape us,” she said. And she was right. Whether they’re memories of the past, the ones we read about in books, or the ones shared in classrooms and offices, they’re an opportunity to celebrate and a way to connect. They shape the way we think and help us see. And sometimes, they teach us how to say goodbye.

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