erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

The Police Department had questions about Nathan, a former student of mine.

He was one of those students who stood out. His smile was infectious, and his personality boomed. The student body voted for him to be “Secretary of Morale” which meant that at every sporting event, he wore blue and green Spartan armor and carried a sword. He would shout with the cheerleaders to stir up the fans, lifting that sword in the air, and everyone watching felt compelled to participate. Whether he was standing in front of that crowd or sitting in room 214 writing an essay, he shined, and everyone who knew him were glad they did.

Seven years after Nathan’s days in high school, the Police Department had questions about him. Why? Because he wanted to become a police officer, and he asked his former English teacher to be a character reference. Of course, I said yes, and when the questionnaire came through email, one memory immediately surfaced.

Nathan was a Junior in high school. One week remained before winter break, and we were all tired, so in order to stir up a little Christmas cheer, I told Nathan and his classmates to write their names on pieces of paper. Kids busily tore paper from notebooks and scribbled down their names while I walked around the room collecting them in a basket.

“What’s this for?” someone shouted.

“You’ll see,” I said, with a sly smile.

After collecting the names, I stood in front of the class holding the basket.

And then I waited.

Kids looked at me awkwardly, wondering what their crazy English teacher would say next.

“I want you to write a Christmas Wish poem,” I announced with a smile.

The class groaned.

“It’s going to be 12 lines,” I said, and I lifted the tone of my voice to sound excited. “And you’re going to write it for the person whose name you draw.”

My holiday happiness wasn’t fooling them, and again they responded with Grinchy groans.

“Don’t tell anyone who you have!” I warned. I started walking around the room again with the basket, and despite their groaning, excitement started building as kids drew names. Then, the bell rang, and they were gone.

When the day came to present the poems, the classroom was filled with strings of lights. Bing Crosby was singing, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”, and with winter break only a few days away, the energy in the room bubbled over like freshly opened sparkling cider.

I faded the music and walked up to the podium.

“Are you guys ready for some poetry?” I shouted.

They smiled and gave some half-hearted cheers.

“Okay, who’s first?”

Shelby raised her hand, and I called her forward. Once she was standing next to the lit-up, miniature Christmas tree, I sat down by my computer.

“Who do you have?” I asked.

“Sara,” she said.

“Okay, Sara, come on down here.” I pointed to a cushioned chair next to the tree, and as she walked forward, I played “Frosty the Snowman.” Kids sang along, and Sara rolled her eyes in embarrassment. Once Sara was seated, the music faded, and Shelby recited her poem.

Student after student came forward to read their poems to their classmates, and each time they finished, the class applauded.

About half way through class, there were still a number of students who hadn’t presented yet.

“Who’s next?” I asked. That’s when Nathan raised his hand.

“Come on up, Nathan.”

A grin was growing on his face, spreading from ear to ear.

Uh oh, I thought. What’s he going to do?

He reached into his backpack and slowly pulled out a huge green and red Christmas stocking. It was overflowing with candy, stretching in every direction. He put on his red Santa hat, complete with a little white ball at the end, and when I started playing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, he wasn’t just walking to the front; he was prancing, like one of Santa’s reindeer on a snowy rooftop. If anyone could overdose on Christmas cheer, it was Nathan.

He got to the front of the room, and I asked, “Who do you have?”

“Stephanie!” he shouted with confidence.

The class went silent with shock.

Stephanie was one of those girls I struggled to include because not one kid wanted to be around her. It wasn’t that she was smelly or mean. She was just awkward. She wore turtle necks and long flannel dresses, and once she got talking, she didn’t know how to stop. Ultimately, like all of us, she just wanted to be seen, and nobody was willing to make that happen. Nobody, that is, except Nathan.

You should have seen Stephanie rise up at the sound of her name. Her face was flush with shy enthusiasm, and her eyes were wide with delight. Nathan waved her over, beckoning her to the cushioned seat. The class watched her move slowly to the front, and when she sat down, Nathan flipped back the white ball on his hat and started reading his poem. He wrote about her intelligence, her boldness in conversation, and her enthusiasm. Line after line was another glimpse of what made Stephanie unique.

The rhyming, the imagery, Nathan’s giddy reading—it was all beautiful, but none of it matched the look on Stephanie’s face in the light of that little tree. She held her hands together, giggling and smiling, looking up at Nathan and then looking at the floor. I watched the two of them at the front of the room. The moment was too perfect to be coincidence; it was sacred. The Author of Christmas was writing that moment into a chapter of our lives, and we all could see His handiwork–He was still “Emmanuel”, God with us!

When Nathan was done, the classroom exploded with applause. Then, he handed her the huge stocking stuffed with candy, gave her a quick hug, and with everyone still clapping, she floated back to her desk. Nobody else brought in a stocking that day stuffed with candy. Nobody else wore a Santa hat or decorated their poems with Christmas pictures. Only Nathan. One of the most popular kids in the school drew the name of the girl nobody wanted. He saw a moment to look beyond himself and gave when everyone else was thinking about getting. He helped a young lady know she was seen and gave us all a glimpse of Christmas we’ll never forget.

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