erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

It takes guts to be a high school student these days. Hormones, isolation, and broken homes stir the cauldrons of anxiety, eating away at students’ hearts like acid.

Some rise above it all. Those students, the ones choosing to keep going and love people well, are my heroes, and being around them inspires me to be a better human.

At the beginning of every year, I ask my students to bring in “Penny Pictures”. They’re pictures of objects that are valuable to them but not really to anybody else. Some bring in pictures of dogs. Others have pictures of bubblegum-machine-jewelry or clouds. Before collecting them, I give everyone a chance to talk about what they brought, and for a few minutes, all of us delight in the simple gifts that usually go unnoticed, just like pennies.

Fifth period was full of people who wanted to share their penny pictures; Sam brought a picture of water and Ashley wanted to talk about her shoes. Each person who shared offered more reasons to smile.

Then Callie raised her hand. When I called on her, she held up a picture of a little girl.

“This is me when I was two,” she said. “It’s the last picture taken of me before the accident—the last one of me without my scar.”

When she said the word “accident”, all the whispering side conversations stopped. Everyone was listening.

I asked her what happened.

“There was an accident with hot oil.” Her voice was trembling. “It’s how I got this scar on my face.” Most of us had seen it already, but when she pulled back her hair, everyone saw the waves and pink discoloration of a scar that covered most of the left side of her face.

“I’m so sorry you went through that Callie,” I said.

“That’s okay. It used to be really hard for me, but I’ve learned to let it go.” She was trying to be strong, but the evidence of pain in her quivering smile said it all.

“Callie, I’m amazed at the courage you just showed by sharing your story!” I barely finished the sentence, and the class was cheering.

We only heard a small part of her story. There was more. . . much more. By second grade, she was being bullied, and it wasn’t just from other students. Her teacher got in on the action, telling her she was “scaring the kids”. Then, when she was desperate for help, her dad checked out of her life. She had nowhere to turn, so “she cried alone.”

Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of her story. Even though she may not have seen Him, there was a God who saw her, and He wasn’t finished with her yet. He loved her, and I caught a glimpse of that a few weeks after everyone presented their “Penny Pictures.”

My students were finishing another assignment for me, reading their “Face Paragraphs.” They had to write a paragraph about the face of the person whose name they drew out of a hat. It had to include five prepositional phrases and some flowery language.

Amya, a class leader who usually sat in the front row, was absent the day her classmates drew names, so when I saw her later, I told her to pick anyone.

They had to make the paragraphs positive. There would be no describing zits or flabby cheeks, and I offer extra-credit to anyone who reads their paragraph aloud to the class. Sounds awkward, right? But did students still step into the spotlight to read? You bet!

They took turns boldly reading their paragraphs like Shakespearean romantics, and every awkward reading was met with uproarious laughter and applause.

Amya was the last to go. I was just about to move on to something else when she raised her hand.

“Can I share what I wrote?” she asked.

“Oh yeah, sure Amya. Come on up.” She walked to the front and laid her paragraph down in front of her. With her sweet southern accent, she read, “This girl’s face lights up the whole room.”

She described her person’s eyebrows, lips, and the beautiful color in her eyes. Everyone looked around the room while they listened, trying to figure out who she was describing.

Then, Amaya mentioned the scar. It felt like the air was sucked out of the room. Nobody looked at Callie, but we all knew.

“The scar,” she wrote, “not only represents the past, but strength.”

Of all the students in the class she could have written about, Amya chose Callie. And rather than avoid writing about the scar, she focused on it. She let the scar unveil the beauty of the person Callie had become.

She read her last sentence:

“From hairline to chin, her face is merely pure beauty displaying ultimate perfection.”

When I finally looked over, the young lady she was describing was wiping away tears.

The class erupted in applause.

“Can I take a picture of it?” Callie asked, her eyes still sparkling. “I want to show my mom.”

Callie and I sat together after school. She had to finish a grammar test, and when she was done, she shared more of her story. There was a camp, a friend who invited her to church, and some kids she was babysitting who taught her how to pray. There was even a pastor who saw her in the crowd and introduced himself.

“God obviously loves you!” I told her. “He saw that second-grade little girl crying alone, and He hasn’t stopped going after you.”

She pulled her hoodie over her face, hiding her tears.

“My cousin once told me,” she said, “God gives his greatest challenges to His strongest warriors.” She smiled, remembering those words, and whispered, “But I’m tired.”

I’m thankful for students in my life like Amya and Callie. So many of them choose to be courageous and let in a little sunlight. Whether they know it or not, they are warriors, God’s warriors, and although God doesn’t wear a helmet or carry a shield, He’s a warrior too. He sees us like Amya saw Callie. We’re His “Penny Pictures”, and when we’re too tired to fight anymore, He fights for us, bringing beauty from our scars and reminding us, yet again, that we’re loved.