erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

I’m weak. There are limits to what I can do, and I’m becoming more aware of that as I get older. In the middle of a good conversation with a student, I might feel like I’m Superman flying through the air, but I’m not. All it takes is a failed lesson plan or a student walking out of class to remind me of that. Teaching humbles me, but in a strange way, I’m grateful.

Last week, after the bell rang and all the students filed out to go home, Jennifer lingered. She’s a student of mine who loves writing, and despite being shy, still chooses to get involved in class. Her courage amazes me. She walked to the front and waited patiently.

“Can I hang out here a bit?” she asked.

“Sure Jennifer,” I said. “What’s going on?”

“It’s just noisy out there. It makes me anxious.” I nodded my head. Her comment made sense with all the anxiety I’ve seen lately among students and even felt inside myself. Still, I waited to see if there was more. She took a second, and then added, “. . .and there’s this kid who hates me.”

“What?!” I asked, “That’s terrible!” I looked around and noticed we were alone.

Being alone with a female student is something I avoid, so I asked if she’d walk with me to the English Department. We crossed the hall and sat at a table where teachers and custodians busily walked past.

“A student hates you?” I asked.

Then she told me about the bullying she’s faced. She told me about being posted on the “Pick Me” site for people Doherty students label as losers. I shook my head in disgust.

“That’s not all,” she added. “I also got put on the ‘Doherty’s Hot’ site, and all these kids rated me a zero out of ten; one kid even said I should die.” She was looking down at the table, ashamed, and I could tell she was crying.

“I can’t believe what you’ve been through, Jennifer,” I said. These are sites on Instagram?”

“Yeah. My mom was pissed and told the school.”

We were both quiet a moment, and then I broke the silence.

“I got bullied too, Jennifer,” I said.

She looked up, wiping her eyes.

When I was in 7th grade, these 9th graders grabbed my legs and swung me around in the halls until change fell from my pockets. I leaned forward on the table and told her about this bully’s girlfriend laughing awkwardly as she watched him spin me.

Jennifer listened, offering a kind smile. We had both faced the same darkness and found our way through it.

“How are things now?” I asked.

“Not bad. My mom used to be an alcoholic, but she’s getting better.” The more she told me, the more I felt overwhelmed with the mess she’s faced. We talked for probably thirty minutes until her mom texted.

“My mom’s here,” she said. She got up and said goodbye. But as she was leaving, she turned around and added, “Maybe we could do this again sometime.”

“That would be great,” I said. Our conversation captured everything I love about teaching. It’s an opportunity to remind students they’re not alone, and in the process, show them God’s love. Did I feel like Superman? Maybe a little, but all that changed the next day.

The bell rang for lunch. Students were zipping up backpacks and hurrying to the door. Then Jennifer walked in.

“Hey Jennifer!” I shouted with a smile.

“Hey Mr. Ahnfeldt, do you mind if I stick around for lunch?” One simple question sent a million thoughts racing through my head.

Eating alone with Jennifer wasn’t an option.

The English Department table was full of teachers–no option there.

Should I ask a female teacher to join us?

Should I just tell her I couldn’t do it?

Remember what I said about limits. Like a fish looking through the glass of an aquarium, this was a boundary I couldn’t cross. Jennifer didn’t know that. She just wanted to talk and enjoy a quiet lunch. I panicked.

“I’m going to go eat in the English Department,” I said, pointing through my classroom door, “but you’re welcome to have this classroom all to yourself.”

Typing those words makes me cringe. It sounded like rejection.

And Jennifer had gotten far too used to that.

I lingered a little in the room, wishing there was a better way to handle the situation. We chatted about writing and why she didn’t like lunch, and after a few minutes, I was heading to the door.

That’s when Jazzy walked in.

She and I knew each other from Bible study, and her name says it all. There’s a brightness in her smile. It’s an overflow of the hope she carries.

She walked right up to me.

“Is there Bible Study today?” she asked, but as she asked, her gentle eyes found Jennifer, now sitting on the couch preparing to eat alone.

“No, we moved it to Thursday nights,” I said. “Do you two know each other?”

Jazzy was already walking toward Jennifer.

They both exchanged hellos.

“Why are you in here?” Jazzy asked.

“I just wanted to go somewhere quiet for lunch.”

“Do you mind if I sit here too?”

Jennifer patted the cushion next to her, and as Jazzy sat down, I stood there in wonder. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

The two of them started talking—quiet words, smiles, listening and nodding heads—enjoying a moment I knew was sacred. Like warm sunlight in a cold room, Jazzy was bringing Jesus.

I had reached my limit. No more playing Superman. No perfect answers, but the Author of Jennifer’s story saw her heart and came to her rescue.  He wrote into a chapter of her life a twist I never saw coming.

And her name was Jazzy.

My weakness became the curtain call for His strength.

“Have a good lunch,” I said, waving and walking out. Caught up in sweet conversation, they barely noticed I left.

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