Remembering Mrs. Ahrens

   

   Thinking back to that hot spring day six or seven years earlier, I could remember Mrs. Ahrens’ concern for me as I laid in the dirt next to home plate after being beaned in the middle of the back by her son Michael’s fastball. I had turned my back because there was no escaping the ball’s path, and I took it in the center of my spine before crumpling to the ground. It stung like hell, but after getting my breath, I wiped my uniform clean and trotted down to first base while hearing my dad tell everyone I would be OK. Seemingly satisfied by my father’s remarks, Mrs. Ahrens sat back down and enjoyed the rest of the day, but I nursed the swollen welt that left the seam marks of the baseball imprinted on my skin. 

  As I turned off from the main corridor and headed down A-wing for my first day of my Public Speaking class, I felt a bit of nausea begin to slowly crawl out of my navel and make its way toward my mouth. My heart raced, my mouth became dry, and my palms began to sweat. In a few more steps, I would be making the turn into Mrs. Ahrens’ class. After experiencing many Little League games against her sons and playing with her youngest son, Roger, in high school, I knew she was a kind, gentle, caring woman, but I was still nervous. After all, is there any 10th grade student who looks forward to public speaking? I sure didn’t think so. 

  Turning the corner and walking through the door, I saw many familiar faces in the classroom. Looking around, I knew we would have a good class, as most people in the class were relatively close to each other. I took a seat halfway back in the room and on the far right. She welcomed me as I set my other books on the desk and took a deep breath. And there I was… once again ready to learn about something I would never need in the future. I wasn’t going to be a politician. I wasn’t going to be newscaster. I wasn’t going to be a lecturer. Heck, I didn’t know what the heck I was going to be, but I knew I would never be speaking in front of people.

  As the weeks wore on, we learned a lot about how different people approach public speaking. We studied the intricacies of keeping the audience’s attention, and we learned how to divert our nervousness if we felt it beginning to take over. She told us to watch great speakers and follow their lead. We learned to pick a spot or a face in the crowd and to stare at the place or person while speaking but to make sure whatever we picked to look at was in the middle of the room, which would allow us to move our head back and forth but always return to the center. She taught us to pretend we were speaking to one person in the crowd so it would make all the other nameless faces disappear. 

  Then, the big assignment finally made its way into our laps. We had to pick something of our own choice to speak about and give a presentation on that topic to help people learn more about it. Panic-stricken, I didn’t know what to do. I left class and begged for something to pop into my mind to talk about. How would I ever find something that would allow me to hold the interest of all my classmates and entertain them for the better part of 30 minutes?

  Finally, I gave in and sheepishly wandered back to A-wing at the end of the next school day. I told her I didn’t have any idea how to approach the assignment. Her genuine smile and cheerful voice instantly hit home with me as I listened to her words.

  After building my confidence for a solid five minutes, she hit me with the news that she couldn’t help me pick a topic, but she did tell me that I needed to pick something that I knew a lot about. She explained to me that speaking about things that interest us usually makes it easier to give a presentation that will interest others. She left me with one bit of final advice after I slung my bag of books over my shoulder.

  She said, “Whatever you’re going to do, just make sure you are more prepared than anyone else and be passionate about the subject when you speak.” 

  When I made the left turn out of the classroom and headed down the hall, I could see my bus pulling up. I jumped on, looked out the window, and decided I was going to give my speech about archery. I knew that not many of my fellow classmates knew much, if anything, about archery, so I would give it my best shot at filling their heads full of unfamiliar information. However, I was unsure how I would set the tone and snag their interest, so the next day, I asked her if I could bring my bow to class for my presentation. She told me it wouldn’t be a problem, so my preparations began. 

  While listening to my classmates go before me, I enjoyed many of their speeches. I learned things that I had never known, and a few speeches perked my interest about topics I had never considered. Then, it was my turn. I would be speaking the next day. 

  Before leaving school, I popped my head into Mrs. Ahrens’ classroom and reminded her that I was bringing my bow and arrows to class the next day. She smiled that big smile of hers and replied, “Are you prepared?” 

  I nodded with approval and said, “Absolutely. I think I’m all set.”

  She giggled and chirped, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  There were two speeches given each day, and my speech would be the second one, which would give my anxiety time to do jumping jacks in my belly and trampoline off from the roof of my mouth. I never heard the first person speak. My mind was focused on all the particulars I would have to cover, and I could hear Mrs. Ahrens, voice saying that the best speakers are always prepared, no matter the subject.

  My classmates became quiet when I laid my bow and arrows on the desk in front of me. Standing at the podium, I decided I didn’t want to stand to give my speech, so I sat down. Mrs. Ahrens looked at me awkwardly and asked what I was doing. I explained to her that it would be more convenient for me to take a seat for my speech so I could more easily handle the equipment and allow me to make my audience feel like they were also archers. 

  She interrupted me at that point and told the class that it was important to take chances and be different. She told them that my approach, although different, would work well in that situation. 

  The minutes passed quickly, and I almost forgot I was babbling about archery because I got lost in what I was talking about. Within seconds, I felt like I was sitting in the archery club talking to other archers. I answered the questions and opened people’s eyes to a sport that many had never known about. 

  Mrs. Ahrens passed away last week, but the lessons she taught me that year have remained. I’ve been lucky enough to speak at many public functions over the years. I’ve spoken at church functions, in schools, at sportsman shows, and in fish and game clubs among other places. The lesson I learned about preparation has stuck with me in everything I’ve done. I will not do anything unless I’m prepared. It simply makes it better for me and for anyone involved. 

  Although we have many teachers throughout our school years, there are a few that stand out. These teachers aren’t the same for everyone. However, every student has a teacher or two who understand them and how to help them grow. Mrs. Ahrens was one of those teachers to me. She is one of the ones I’m thankful for. The lessons she taught to me were full of knowledge I would need for her Public Speaking class, but more than that, they were full of life lessons. We never know what the impact of a person will be when we meet him or her, but when we glance back in time, we can see people who made significant contributions to our lives. 

  The years have passed quickly… and I have aged… and so have my teachers – my heroes. I took the lessons given to me from many of them and tried constructing the best life possible out of those lessons. In doing so, I was fortunate enough to be inducted into the Hudson Falls High School Wall of Distinction, at which time I chose to invite the teachers who I felt made the greatest contributions to my success and allowed me to do things that led to my nomination. 

  I invited a handful of teachers to attend the ceremony and hoped that some would be able to make it, as most of them were getting up there in age. Right before the ceremony started, my uncle came down to me in the front row and said that there was someone who wanted to see me at the back of the auditorium. Walking up the aisle, I saw Mrs. Ahrens waiting for me… she had made the trip to the induction, and I was thankful. We exchanged pleasantries, and she told me she would have to leave before the social hour afterward. I was highly disappointed I wouldn’t be able to talk with her again, but I was delighted that she found the time in her busy schedule to make it there that day. As I enjoyed going to her class almost 40 years ago, I can only hope she enjoyed hearing about how my life has played out so far.

  During my speech, I told people how she had helped me to prepare for the moment I was sharing with them. As I was speaking about her, I hoped in some small way that she was proud of me. I knew my parents and family were proud of me, but I hoped that the teachers who helped me along the way felt the same. That’s why I made sure to give them the credit they deserved, for without them, many things in my life never would have happened. 

  When I looked toward the back of the auditorium near the end of the ceremony, I saw an empty place where she had been sitting when I was speaking. She was gone, but I had let her know in my speech that a part of her will always be alive within me. Thank you, Mrs. Ahrens, for being a teacher who taught me what I was meant to learn.

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