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The Worst Thing Was Not the Last

February 5th, 2024 | 4 min read

By Erin Ahnfeldt

As the sun rose in the east, students waited to cross the street, and Giorgia stood among them. She had great plans. Her friend Emma was waiting to talk over coffee; she had tennis practice after school; and with Spring Break only days away, she was about to go home to Italy. Life, like the sunshine, was looking good.

The light changed, the walking man lit up, and the crowd of students, bathed in morning brightness, began to cross. Giorgia joined them, stepping out into the street headed to school on the other side, and with a few steps, darkness covered our campus like a black shroud.

The young driver in the jeep never saw her.  People on their way to work and kids walking to school saw the sirens.  Peering through the sun’s glare, they saw the darkened silhouettes of emergency workers hunched over doing all they could, but she was gone.

Inside the school, the hearts of her teachers and friends broke as news spread. School was canceled, and after teachers ushered students out of the building, we lingered, needing to be together.

Death never makes sense. There’s no looking back at tragedy and explaining away the pain. And when it comes, it’s dark.

After students left for the day, a security guard stood alone in the halls. I went to check on him.

“Why did God take her?” he asked.  “I’m old.  Why not me?” He looked at me, waiting for an answer.

I had none.

“Erin, she had so much life,” he whispered.

I felt helpless, but I threw out the first thought in my head.

“God is still here with us,” I said, patting him on the shoulder.  My friend nodded politely, but my words fell flat, and he walked away.

Administrators decided to open school the following day, believing we needed to be together.

And we did.

I walked into my first period class feeling the heaviness of that dark shroud.  No teacher training could prepare me for this.  The first bell rang, and students with slumped shoulders quietly took their seats.

Danny didn’t have his usual laugh, and Angela’s smile was gone.  But I looked at their faces and saw something I never expected.

I saw hope.

“Does anyone want to say anything?”

“Mr. Ahnfeldt, did you see the tent outside?” Maddie asked.

“No.”

“A church set up a tent, and they’re passing out hot chocolate to kids.”

Danny’s hand went up, and I looked over at him.

“Go ahead Danny.”

He straightened up in his seat.

“Yeah, there’s a vibe in the halls I haven’t felt before,” he said.  “People are really coming together.”

He was right.

Giorgia’s favorite color was red, so ROTC put up red balloons outside. In the cafeteria, students wrote notes on a makeshift red banner to say goodbye to their friend and offer words of hope. And watching it all was the giant Spartan statue holding his sword. Bouquets of pink, red, and yellow flowers covered his metal feet.

At lunch, colleagues commented on the kids’ calm, gentle demeanor. There were hugs in the hallways and honest conversations in the classrooms. No fights, no shouting, no running from security.

During fifth period, Sophia couldn’t hold back the tears, and before I could walk over, a friend slipped into the classroom and offered a hug.

“Can we take a walk?” her friend asked, and I nodded. They walked out the door, arms around each other.

Seventh period rolled around, and I had the students write in their journals. Then, I asked if they wanted to share anything.

Darren was leaning back in his chair in the back row. His hand went up.

“Go ahead Darren.”

“I’ve never seen the school come together like this,” he said, and there was a tenderness in his voice.  “Everyone seems so close.”

“I think you’re right Darren,” I said. “I’ve seen it too.”

Brenden raised his hand.

“Can I share a prayer?” he asked.

The public-school teacher in me was afraid of what people might think, but I let it go.

“Sure Brenden.”

He walked up to the podium, held his phone right up to his thick glasses and started to read.

“Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.  May she rest in peace.”

He finished the prayer, and there were no chuckles or whispering digs from classmates.  The room was silent. Brenden’s prayer was sacred to each of them, and when he crossed himself, a few others did the same.

“It’s good to see the way people are helping each other,” he told the class, holding the podium with both hands.  “And if you need someone to talk to, I’m here.”

When he was done, he smiled and said, “That’s all,” and walked back to his seat.

The last bell rang, and I walked around my empty classroom feeling numb. I was tired, but the day brought hope.

One week after the accident, I sat in church celebrating Easter. The idea of life coming after death felt especially poignant with the fresh memory of losing Giorgia.

As the service ended, my pastor prayed, “Thank you, God, that the worst thing is not the last.”

Jesus coming out of that tomb shouts to the world that death doesn’t have the final say. Jesus does.

Giorgia’s story isn’t over.

Her story, like all of ours, is still being written by an Author who loves us, and in each chapter, the evidence of His presence brings life.

I had told my security guard friend that God was still with us, and felt weak doing it, but the next day brought powerful evidence that I was right.  The hands passing out hot chocolate were His hands. The arms reaching out to offer hugs were His arms. He was in the beauty of the flowers covering the Spartan’s metal feet and in the words of hope written on the red banner. He was in the community we all felt, and during the last period of the day, He was in the courage Brenden found to pray.

The worst thing was not the last.  Everyone at my school faced death, like a hard, bitter winter. But after the death of winter, green shoots broke through the cold ground and opened in the sunshine.  After death came life, and we found it by being together.

Erin Ahnfeldt

Erin Ahnfeldt is a high school English teacher with more than two decades in the classroom. He’s passionate about using his writing to point to the God who not only writes our stories but is also very present in our day-to-day lives. If you’re interested in receiving his honest stories about the struggles and beauty of being a Christian teacher in a public school, contact him here: https://lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/tGPsWhr