erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Room 216 is a long walk from the English Department. Going west through the main English hallway, after a sharp right, it’s all the way down near the stairwell. . . pretty isolated. Any teacher who spends a few years working at my high school winds up teaching in different classrooms, and one particular year, I was happy to be in room 216.

It wasn’t my introverted personality or the fact that there were less wandering students trying to avoid security guards. I was thankful to be there because I had some rough classes that year, and any cussing tirades or kids sent into the hallway would be less likely to distract other teachers. Public schools bring lots of people together from all different backgrounds filled with brokenness and insecurities, and that includes the teachers. That includes me. If the wrong scenario catches people in their worst moments, there can be some explosions, and 6th period that year had a few too many of those.

The explosions started with a transfer. Jaylen got permission to transfer from one of my morning classes to 6th period. Her grades were low, and she seemed withdrawn, but it was encouraging she still wanted to give me a shot at helping her, or so I thought. Behind the scenes, her friend Becca, who was already in that class, was the true catalyst for the move. They wanted to hang out. On their own, they both seemed harmless. Becca was even becoming a positive classroom leader, but in all my years of teaching, I’ve never seen a more caustic combination than when those two girls came together. It was like mixing vinegar and bleach, two harmless chemicals on their own, but when they’re combined, toxic chlorine vapors poison the air.

It didn’t take long for those vapors to slowly eat away at the classroom dynamic. Just before the first bell would ring, the long walk from my office to room 216 turned my stomach into knots. There was always a battle waiting for me, and every one of them sucked the joy out of the room.

One of the few rules I have in my classroom is that cell phones, while important, should remain in backpacks, purses, or pockets. It was a rule that Becca used as an opportunity. Right in the middle of a class discussion, she would pilfer through her purse, take her cell phone out, and then punch the keys to send a text. The old adage of being a “bull in a china shop” definitely applied. She wasn’t trying to be subtle. Everyone would look at her typing away on her phone and then look at me. A smile would grow on her face as I approached her desk, and Jaylen would give her a giddy laugh for support. The inevitable back and forth would take place until I had her phone or she was in the hall. Class discussion over—check. Attention from class—check. Jaylen laughing—check.

Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.” Every confrontation with those girls brought that verse to mind and tested my ability to believe it. God was using the battles in room 216 to work on me, and it brought me to my knees in desperation for Him.

Checking an email one morning, my heart sank. The school was going to have a Shelter in Place drill during 6th period. What?!! My day went from survivable to nightmarish with one emailed announcement. During a Shelter in Place drill, the students are supposed to move to a part of the room where there are no windows and sit quietly while the teacher turns off the lights. It’s a serious drill because it’s only used when there’s a threat in the building. All of the students in that class, including Jaylen and Becca would have to practice being absolutely quiet, and it would be my job to make that happen. Fireworks here we come, I thought to myself.

The 6th period bell rang to begin class, and over the intercom came the voice of the assistant principal: “We’re now conducting a Shelter in Place drill. Teachers, please walk your students through the procedure.” The class looked at me, and then glanced over at Becca and Jaylen. What were they going to do?

“Ok guys. Everyone get out of your seats and sit against the wall.” Students started walking over to the wall. Some took their time, especially the Vinegar and Bleach.

“Let’s go girls; sit down.” I wanted to sound calm and confident. Any signs of frustration would be like blood in the water for sharks. Eventually, taking their time, the girls sat down, and I turned out the lights. Instantly, a blue light went on in front of Becca. It was a cell phone.

Without any effort to be quiet at all, Jaylen yelled out, laughing, “Becca, that’s my phone. Give me my phone. Is it a text message?”

“Girls, you need to be quiet and put that phone away” I whispered. “Becca, give Jaylen her phone now!” Jaylen reached over to grab it, and Becca stood up, holding it just out of reach. She was smiling, and then both girls started laughing. This was fun for them.

“I’d put away my phone if this dumbass would give it to me.” Now there was language, a phone out, and they were standing. It was reaching DEFCON 4, and I felt my blood boiling. The class watched the silhouette of the girls laughing in the blue light of the phone. They were watching the show, and sitting there in the dark, they couldn’t wait to see what their teacher would do next.

That’s all for today! Sorry to do this to you, but you’ll find out what happened next in two weeks. One of my greatest joys in life is to use words to encourage. I hope to do that with these stories, and someday soon with a book. If you think others might be encouraged by these words, please consider sharing this on Facebook or forwarding it to a friend. And if someone sent this to you, you can sign up here to get these stories twice a month. Thank you for your support!