Public schools, like life, are loud. Long beeps signal the end of class periods, the loose air conditioning vent rattles on and on in the ceiling, and the copy machine offers a rhythmic mechanical chunk a chunk as it pushes out paper. On Fridays, the football team does its traditional jog through the school stampeding like buffalo past every classroom. There are voices booming from intercoms and yelling back and forth during lunch. Then, in between every loud, long beep, a mighty river of humanity fills the hallways with bodies and noisy conversation, slowly shuffling along and spilling into open doorways.
In the midst of all that noise, quiet Tuesday mornings settle on the week like a welcome, gentle snow.
It’s dark in November at 6:45 am, and it’s not easy to step out of a warm car onto the cold asphalt of the school parking lot. Weariness weighs heavy, yet there is a stillness about those mornings that is not just the result of the school being empty so early. The sound of sleepy “good mornings” intermingle with desks screeching across a tile floor as they’re pulled into a circle in room 212.
Teachers, counselors and administrators drop into those circled seats carrying the noise and knots tied up within them by life. A husband lost his job and lost himself in the process; an uncle has cancer; that 7th period class just keeps going wrong; and the words from that parent or student still sting, painting the week black. Children cry out for help behind their tough teenage masks. Sarah has an alcoholic dad who never comes home, and Jose doesn’t have a home. Andrew skipped class again, looking for a little acceptance in the cloud of smoke by the 7-11, and Ashley is so gripped by anxiety that she can hardly breathe.
The noise of the week and the noise within is deafening, but sitting in those desks, facing each other, we close our eyes, and Jesus calms the “storms”. The room and our hearts are quiet, and it’s in that place, in a public-school classroom, that God has taught me to pray.
I have a confession to make. One of those mornings when we were praying, I opened my eyes. I’m glad I did. If I didn’t, I would have missed a glimpse of what makes that circle so powerful. Someone shuffled in front of me; I opened my eyes, trying to be subtle, facing the floor but watching the feet. Sandra was getting out of her desk, and when I looked up, she was walking down one of the rows of desks away from us. “She must have an early meeting,” I thought, but then she turned around at the end of the row and was coming back. The praying continued, but Sandra was on some kind of mission. She made her way to Stacy, sitting next to me. Just after I saw Sandra put her hands on Stacy’s shoulders, I looked down and saw an arm reaching across me. Kim was holding Stacy’s hand. “What is going on?”
My mind spun in a clueless male vortex for just a moment until finally it clicked. Stacy was crying. The sniffling I heard wasn’t from a cold. The whole circle was there for Stacy before I even had a clue, but eventually we were all carrying her load. When we said “Amen,” there were hugs and Kleenexes, and the ladies taught me something.
In that circle, we can bring God our requests, but we can also bring Him our people. They saw a friend carrying a load and stepped up in the best way they knew how—they carried her to Jesus.
Jim used to pray with us on Tuesdays, but God called him to leave his dry-erase marker and math textbooks behind to go love the people in Serbia. The teachers he left behind were sad, but we figured God knew what he was doing, so we let him go, as if we had any say in the matter. Still, it’s strange sitting in that circle without him. That’s what made hearing his voice last Tuesday such a gift. 6:45 am is only 2:45 pm in Serbia, so he called us. Why not? The phone rang, and there he was, ready to pray, so we put the phone on a table in the middle of the circle.
With my heart still processing the words my pastor, Thomas Thompson, shared the week before, I read some of Exodus 14 when Moses says to the terrified Israelites, “The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Like a father, quieting his child, God used those words to quiet us. We closed our eyes, and Jim prayed, “God, I’m sure those Israelites had a hard time believing they would ‘never’ see those Egyptians again. Help us believe that you can do what seems impossible.”
Everything in me agreed with that prayer. The hurting kids, the spouses looking for jobs, cancer, and classes going wrong bring a noise that, like the Egyptians, seems overwhelming. It’s all so loud inside us, and somehow, lost in all that noise, we try to fight those battles on our own, trying desperately to find stillness that only God can bring.
One by one, with our eyes closed, we let go of our battles. Here God, take these students who feel alone. Take my classroom. I give you that email that I can’t shake. Stillness replaced the noise, and we said “Amen”.
Jim got cut off halfway through the prayer, so I texted him to call back, and when we finished, he said, “There’s a little lesson there. Erin’s phone may drop your call, but God never will.” We laughed. A couple of math teachers got close to the phone to say “hi” as one of the counselors and an administrator helped put desks back into rows. Not many people ate the cinnamon rolls I brought that morning, but everyone left that room filled up with a supernatural kind of quiet, the kind that only comes when we close our eyes, look to our Father and let go.
Written by Erin Ahnfeldt
Erin teaches English at Doherty High School, and he and his family attend Pulpit Rock. Read more from Erin on his blog where he writes about seeing God in the public school classroom and in the every day.