Coming alongside troubled teens.
by Erin Ahnfeldt
When the first bell rings, teenagers shuffle into my classroom with their pants and self-confidence sagging low. They sink into their seats. As I look into those eyes so desperate for hope, I don’t always know what to say.
It would be nice to tell them about Jesus, but the reality is, I’m working in a public school. Even if I could share the gospel directly, many of the kids would shrug it off and tell me, “I’ve heard it before.”
After twenty years of teaching, answers still don’t come easy. I feel helpless, especially when I get a glimpse of the pain they carry inside.
Drawing the story
One conversation I have with my students every year is about Doris Lessing’s short story Through the Tunnel. The setting is full of great symbolism, so as we talk, we draw it together.
I usually torture them with my stick figures and blobs, telling them with a smile not to be intimidated by my artistic abilities. They laugh out loud or roll their eyes. A few of them will show me what they’ve drawn in their notebooks, proving I’m clearly not the best artist in the room.
We talk about the safe beach being the boy Jerry’s childhood, the rocky bay being adulthood looming ahead, and that dark tunnel — the one the boy is so desperate to get through — being the passageway from one to the other.
“Everyone get out your journals,” I tell them, checking the clock. They pull out their notebooks with the usual groans, and I ask, “What’s a ‘tunnel’ you’ve been through that forced you to grow up?” The silence comes quickly, and they start to write.
When I ask if anyone wants to share, usually five or six kids volunteer. We wade into deeper waters as they tell their stories, and in about ten minutes, we’re done.
That’s it. That’s the lesson. I’ve taught it for fifteen years now, and it’s all familiar, even manageable. Until recently.
The last time my students and I talked about the tunnel, instead of getting a few volunteers, I was looking into a forest of raised hands.
I was giddy, like a kid considering which prize to pick at a carnival. There was no way I could know how the conversation would end that day or how God would use it to shape me. But one thing’s for sure: When it was over, those deeper waters got a little too deep, and I wasn’t wading anymore; I was drowning.
Macey* spoke first.
“Yes, Macey,” I said, pointing at the blonde-haired girl in the front.
“So . . . my brother’s a crackhead, exactly like the ones you see on TV.” She was smiling, trying to be strong. “He’d come home, and I’d find his kids asleep in my room.”
By the time Macey started her next sentence, her voice was shaking. “He’d be crashed in his bed, so I’d have to babysit his kids. Being the youngest, I wasn’t used to that.”
More hands, and I pointed at Maria.
She was quiet. I knew raising that hand took a lot.
As she spoke with a Spanish accent, there was a heaviness in her eyes. “I’ve moved six times since I started school. Each time I moved, I wanted to make friends, but I couldn’t speak English, so I was alone.”
Looking back down at her desk, she whispered, “I had to learn to make it on my own.”
I looked at Maria. “That would be hard,” I said, and everyone nodded quietly.
One after another, kids shared — many with tears — and I thanked each of them for their courage. Beyond that, I couldn’t think of any perfect words of wisdom or comfort to offer them.
Ryann raised her hand. She had been absent for a few days. “Go ahead Ryann,” I said, looking at her.
“I’m still going through my tunnel,” she said, tears already running down her cheeks. She turned around in her desk and looked at the class. “You guys probably noticed I’ve been gone.”
She waited, gathering strength for what she was about to say. “I tried to kill myself last weekend.” Students looked at each other and looked up at me.
Struggling for answers
Watching her cry, I was desperate for God to give me something. Finally, I said, “We walk these halls with no idea what people are carrying, and when you share what you just had the courage to share . . .” I paused, waiting for their attention.
“You’re not only letting go of the stuff inside of you; you’re letting others know they’re not alone.” There were more nodding heads. When the bell rang, I watched Emma and Kaitlyn walk over to Ryann and wrap their arms around her.
Everyone left, and I dropped into my chair, exhausted.
Two days later, I saw one of my colleagues, Kay, in the teacher’s lounge. She lost her son last year. He took his life, overwhelmed with a depression he felt helpless to shake.
I’ve watched Kay carry that pain and still manage to love kids at our school. Now her son’s friends sit in her room at lunch; her office is a safe place for them. Conversations with Kay aren’t superficial. She lets the tears flow when she feels them coming, and she’ll open up to anyone who’ll listen.
“Erin,” she said, looking into my eyes, “these kids just want to be seen.” Her eyes were glistening. I could see a passion there beyond anything I had experienced. “More than grammar or getting through some curriculum, they need to be heard; they need to feel loved . . .”
She tilted her head, wiping away another tear. “And you can offer them that.”
I walked back to my office, thinking about the tunnel conversation with my students. It felt like too much. It left me staring blankly at empty desks, overwhelmed.
But there’s a God who loves to use women like Kay. He moves freely through the halls of my school, just as freely as He does through the pews of any church. He used her words, spoken out of brokenness, to change me.
As a Christian and a teacher, I’m tempted to believe that I’m supposed to have the perfect words and know all the answers, but Kay exposed that idea for what it is: an ugly lie. The kids in my class raised their hands not to get answers but to be seen.
Sitting in my office, I wondered, Did I see them? Did I let go of reaching for answers long enough to really listen? Jesus was a master at seeing people. He saw the little man in the tree and heard the leper in the crowd. And when they looked into His eyes, so lovingly focused on them, they found hope.
The bells at my school will continue to ring, ushering in the boys with the sagging pants and the girls too broken to know they’re loved. They’ll look up at me with those tired eyes. They may not get answers, but they’ll find hope.
Despite my feelings of inadequacy, I can see them going through their tunnels. I can give them a voice by listening to their stories.
In the tunnel
Kay was right. All they need to do is see in my eyes the love of the God who lives in me. And when I sit down next to them in that cold darkness of their tunnels, He’ll be sitting there too.
I may not be able to speak directly of Jesus to my students, but I can sit with them in the darkness and see them the way He does. This is the gospel communicated without words. This is the hope that will light up their darkness more powerfully than my words ever could.
*Some names have been changed in this story.
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