erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

They call it a Capping Ceremony.  Graduating seniors walk into the spotlight when their names are called, and huge pictures of them in diapers are cast on a screen.  There are awww’s or soft chuckles from the audience.

Then, the seniors are “capped”.  Siblings, parents, girlfriends, or even teachers are chosen to place the graduation cap on the seniors’ heads.  Sometimes it’s a struggle–the elastic on the cap doesn’t stretch right or Dad messes up his daughter’s curls.  And while cute pictures are displayed and people struggle with hats, someone reads words.

I’m not talking about cliché phrases like, “I know you’ll go far” or “keep wearing that bright smile”.  They read paragraphs carefully written by different faculty members who know the students well and want to honor each one in very specific, personal ways.

I heard about the tradition a while back from some friends, but this year, with Hope graduating, it was our turn.

The whole process was tricky at first.  Deb and I were second in line to cap Hope, and we were clueless.  It’s hard having a last name beginning with “A”.  The reader introduced the first senior, and we watched him walk through the curtain with his parents to take center stage.

“Do we put the cap on before or after the words are read?” I whispered in a panic.

“I don’t know,” said Deb.  We looked at Hope for an answer.

She just shrugged her shoulders and smiled, so we asked the people behind us.  No clue.

“Hope Ahnfeldt.”

The reader was already reading her name, so we walked through the curtain holding our breath.

The spotlight hit the three of us, and since I had the cap, I just held it as we listened.

“Hope, it would be extremely difficult to find someone at TCA as enthusiastic . . ..”  The reader continued reading while I looked up at the baby pictures behind me.  Is this really happening? I thought.  Hope stood smiling in the light while Deb slipped an arm around her.

“Your actions in the classroom, on the field, and in . . .”  The words trailed off as I stole glances at the 18-year-old woman standing with us.  Time had moved so quickly.  That same girl was just waddling around in our backyard making “soup” in her plastic bucket out of mulch and pine needles.  The reader finished his last few sentences, we placed the cap on Hope’s head, and it was done.  I missed most of what was read and walked off stage with my wife and a girl now shinning brighter to me than that auditorium spotlight.

We made our way back to our seats and watched the rest of the seniors get celebrated.  One by one, they walked onto the stage, and the words were read—much more like a sacred blessing than a letter.

“Tanis, you’ve kept our rivalry with Rampart alive.  You play soccer like you live life. . .”

“Sara, these last two years have been hard, but you’ve taught us how to give even when life gets difficult. . .”

As I listened, I watched the readers.  They were each chosen by the student council to read what was written.  Dr. Wilson, Mrs. Drake, Mr. Reed, Mrs. Eisenhart, Mrs. Stedman, Mrs. Soper—each one read with such crystal clarity and enthusiasm, but it was more than that.

It was joy.

I could hear it ringing like a bell in their voices, and I could see it in their smiles.  Often, as they finished a line, they’d look up from the podium and take a peek at the students to whom they were reading, trying to see if the words were taking root, like columbine seeds in June.

As if the ceremony was not emotional enough, by the time Mrs. Drake was reading through the “M” seniors, a question caught me off guard and stirred up tears.

Were they getting it?  

The beautiful, even sacred, words were read, but most of them didn’t hear a thing.  Some waved at audience members, and others looked at the floor.  Some chose to whisper to their “cappers” while others, like me, looked at the baby pictures.   Many were too anxious to pay attention at all.  They just wanted off stage, and I could relate.

All of them were being sent out with a blessing, but most of them missed it.

Mrs. Drake didn’t shout, “Will you stop waving at those people and listen to me!?”  There was no disappointment on her face.  Only a smile.   She understood, like most rational people, that being on a stage in front of an audience is pretty distracting.  No one expected any of those seniors to actually hear the blessings.

But they hear the lies.  Whether it’s from social media or a broken world, they hear voices saying they’re ugly and worthless.  Like dusty pennies on the floor, they get the message that nobody sees them.

Mrs. Drake kept reading.  And sitting in the dark, I wiped away tears.

From the M families all the way to the Y’s, all I could think about were the sacred words we all miss.

Life, like that stage, is distracting.

A mother says, “I love you” for the hundredth time, and her words are cast off with eye rolls.

A daughter gushes about her day, but dad’s thoughts about work drown out what she’s saying.

A husband and wife could talk, but TV is easier.

And the Bible is left on the shelf when the words inside could set us free.

There are sacred words all around us, whispered or shouted by a God who looks up from His podium and speaks.

He smiles in our direction, and there’s love in His eyes.  It’s written all over His face, and the joy rings with crystal clarity in His voice, but we’re too busy, too distracted, or too afraid to notice.

Here’s the part that gets me—He never stops reading.  He doesn’t get frustrated with our lack of focus.  Like Mrs. Drake knows and loves her students, He knows us, He understands our mess, and He loves us anyway.  And like Mrs. Drake, He keeps reading until at some point, we look up from the stage floor and our eyes meet.  His words finally take root in our hearts, and we’re changed.

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