erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

You never know what it’ll be. Maybe a brush with death, maybe sitting in an old house stuffed with memories, or maybe even a simple story. There are moments in our journeys that catch us by surprise—gifts really—opening our eyes to the beauty all around us. But that beauty is easy to miss. Life gets hard with COVID numbers rising, schools struggling, and brokenness everywhere. There’s plenty that’s ugly, and honestly, if the black muck of life is all we see, our hearts won’t last.

Last week, I stood in front of my class and read about the beauty Patty found sitting in a hospital room with her mom. We talked about stories shaping us, and then I asked a question.

“What story shaped you?”

The question hooked them. The class went silent, taking time to answer it in their journals. I thought maybe 4 or 5 kids would share what they wrote and we’d move on; I was wrong. 15 hands went up.

John talked about Vikings who inspire him to never give up. And Nyajuok told the class about a short story called “A Long Walk for Water”—a story that helped her imagine her mom as a young girl carrying water in Africa. Student after student shared stories that have shaped them.

Then Devi raised her hand. She’s quiet, so seeing her hand up in a loud classroom felt almost sacred, like catching a glimpse of a white snow leopard. But her quietness doesn’t come across as weak. Her brown eyes peer through her glasses, looking directly at anyone she meets. She doesn’t lower her head or slouch in her chair, and she’s proud of being a first-language Spanish speaker. Respect moves through her—for herself and others.

“Go ahead, Devi,” I said.

She took a breath, leaned forward in her seat, and started talking. Her soft voice barely made it beyond her mask.

“Do you know the man in security with the glasses and the moustache?”

“You mean, Champ?” I asked.

His real name is Scott, but the kids call him Champ. The nickname goes all the way back to his boxing days. He used to love going a few rounds in the ring. That was before he started working as a deputy in the Sheriff’s office. Needless to say, with boxing and catching bad guys in his background, Champ is filled with stories, and he’s happy to share them.

“Yes, I think that’s him,” Devi said, and she told us about a day she and her sister were waiting after school for a ride. They’re twins—identical twins—and when Scott saw the two of them laughing together, he called them over.

  “I noticed you guys are twins,” he said as they walked up to him. They nodded, and he added, “Me too.”

He told them that he and his twin brother were never very close. But one night, his brother came home from watching a boxing match, and the two of them talked late into the night.

“It was one of the best times we’ve ever had together,” he said. It was the kind of conversation they had always dreamed of having, but neither of them could’ve known what was coming.

The next night Champ’s brother was killed in a car accident.

“I saw you both together,” Champ told them, “And I could tell you enjoy each other.” Then he smiled and said, “I wish I had a relationship with my brother like the two of you have.”

Their ride came, so the sisters thanked him and said goodbye. But Champ’s words stayed with them.

Devi took a moment from telling her story, fixing her mask and gathering herself. “You never know when you might lose someone you love,” she told the class. And the tears in her brown eyes were sparkling through her glasses.

“Thanks Devi,” I said. We all sat for a moment in the quiet. As I looked for the next hand to go up, kids silently nodded their heads. Champ’s story had moved all of us, and Devi had the courage to share it.

The next day, I was on my way to the main office and saw Champ sitting in a chair by the front door. He was greeting kids as they came.

“Hey bro,” I hollered as I walked up to him. “Guess what happened in class yesterday?”

I told him about Devi and how rare it is for her to speak. I told him about the question I asked, and that Devi, of all people, wanted to answer it. And when I told him that his story about his brother was the one she shared, just like in Devi’s eyes, there were tears in his eyes too.

Manny, one of our new security guards, was standing there with us.

“You see!” Manny said, slapping him on the back. “You never know what your words will mean to someone.”

Champ was speechless. All he could say was, “Wow!. . . I never thought. . .”

When I left, he was sitting up a little straighter. There was a wonder in his eyes, and even though he wore a mask, I knew that underneath it, there was a beautiful, trembling smile.

Manny was right. You know why Devi and Champ both had tears in their eyes? Someone had the courage to say something! A story helped them see. That’s what Thanksgiving is all about. It’s about seeing differently—a young woman seeing her sister as a gift instead of a nuisance and a retired police officer seeing his job as a calling instead of a drag. There are glimpses of God’s grace all around us, glimpses of His beauty, and sometimes the quickest way to catch those glimpses is through stories.

Sitting around the table this Thanksgiving, there will be the usual conversations about the news and drama at work, but like rare snow leopards, there will also be stories of grace hidden away inside of people. There may even be one in you. Share those stories; listen to them; find ways to stir them up. And as the stories are being passed around like the potatoes and corn, you may find that your heart feels a little stronger because someone at your table had the courage to say something.

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