erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

People ask me why I write these stories, and my answer is always the same.  Like being the first to see the streaking oranges and reds of a sunset, I have to shout, “Hey everyone, look!”  One of my students shows courage or a discussion takes a spiritual turn, and I know God is unveiling His beauty right there in front of me—just like He does with those sunsets.  How could I stay quiet about that?

Two weeks ago, I watched one of those “sunsets” unfold right in the middle of my classroom.  It was Friday, so every class began with “Instant Replays.”  Students can earn extra credit by sharing words with the class that mean something to them.  But they must be printed out.

The bell rang for 8th period to start, and I greeted everyone.

“Okay,” I shouted with a smile, “whose got an Instant Replay?”

Scanning the room, I was hoping for at least one.  I had Maroon 5’s clean version of Payphone cued up as walk-up music.

Then, Jonas raised his hand.

“I’ve got one, Mr. Ahnfeldt.”

Looking at his desk, I didn’t see any printed-out paper.

“Are the words typed?” I asked.

“No,” he said, his brow furrowed. “Did they have to be?”

“Yeah.  Just bring it typed next Friday.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but he wasn’t done.

“Can I just share it without the points?”

I looked at him, thinking.  The class had been watching the conversation like a tennis match.

It was my serve.

“Should I let him share his words?” I asked my students, knowing what they’d say.

“Yes!” they all shouted.

“Okay, Jonas, come on up.”  My TA, Meghan, played Payphone, and when the music started, Jonas smiled and walked up confidently.  He’s a leader, the rare kind anyone can trust, including his teachers.

Gripping the podium with both hands, he looked at the class.  Everyone was excited to hear what he had to say, but then his countenance changed.  His smile faded with the music.

“Someone once told me we’re like balloons.”  He tried to smile as he worked at the words, but he couldn’t.  “They told me if we let our hurt build up without talking about it, we’ll pop.”  He paused for a minute looking down at the podium.

“Two weeks ago,” he said, his voice trembling, “I lost a friend.  He took his life, and I didn’t talk about it.”  He waited a minute, trying to hold back the tears, and I handed him some Kleenex.

“I got in a fight with my mom, and I guess I popped.”  Finally, the flood of emotion was too much, and all of us watched this strong, confident young man melt into brokenness.  As he wept, his shoulders shook, and he struggled to get the words out.

“I said some hurtful things I shouldn’t have,” he whispered between sniffles.  “Don’t let that happen to you.”

He sat down, and nobody clapped.  There was a sacred silence that spoke the words nobody knew how to say.

Walking up to the podium, I wanted to encourage him.

“Not many people are brave enough to come up here and get real like that,” I said.

He nodded, attempting a smile, and everyone in the room felt it.  Something was happening among us.

Then AJ raised his hand.

“Can I say something?”

“Of course, AJ?”

Meghan played Payphone, but it didn’t capture the vibe.

“I just want to say thanks to Jonas.”  AJ waited for the words.  “I lost a friend too, and it’s hard for me to talk about it, but Jonas gave me the courage.”  He nodded at Jonas and then sat down.  Everyone clapped this time, and Jonas smiled.  The mask-removal was gaining momentum and people were feeling seen.

“Mr. Ahnfeldt, I’ve got something to say,” Stephen said from the back.  He came up, and his words flowed like honey, smoothing over the pain.

“AJ and Jonas didn’t have to be so honest in front of all of us, but they were.”  He looked at each of them sitting in their seats.  “And I admire you for that.”   Again, everyone clapped.

Looking around the room, other students were moved as well.

L asked to step out of the classroom, and I asked Meghan to go with her; they walked out, arms around each other.

When I went to check on them, Meghan gave L a hug and walked away.

“What’s going on, L?” I asked.  She was leaning against the wall, her hand covering her face.

“Mr. Ahnfeldt, don’t worry.  These are happy tears,” she said, and our laughter echoed through the hallway.

“I’ve just never been part of something like this,” she continued.  “A few years ago, I wanted to end my life.”  Then she pointed to the class.  “But the people in there genuinely care about each other.  They’re being kind, and I might have missed this.”

I felt it too—like Tinkerbell was sprinkling her dust all over our classroom, and all of us “lost boys” were finding each other.  But this wasn’t some magical pixie dust; this was real.

“Oh, L, you’re a huge part of that kindness,” I said, patting her on the shoulder.  And I meant what I said.  The way she listens makes people feel seen.

Then, Kerisha walked into the hallway.

“You too, Kerisha?” I asked, smiling.

“What’s happening in there?” she said, laughing as she wiped away tears.  “Is that some kind of therapy session?”

It wasn’t a therapy session; most of the students didn’t know what hit them.

But I knew.

God was there, pushing this broken teacher aside so He could release the pent-up emotion in a whole lot of balloons.  I almost didn’t let it happen, but Jonas was right.  They needed to cry and process, or they, too, would have popped.  It was beautiful, like God had used the colors in their storms to paint a sunset full of hope and wonder.

But what I didn’t consider was how much I needed to process.  Just days before, a SWAT team had come to our school looking for a gunman.  Winds of angst swirled inside me too, and when I walked up to the podium to share my Instant Replay, what came out of my mouth wasn’t what I planned.

That’s all for today! Thanks for reading, and make sure to check out the conclusion in two weeks.  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!