How My Students and I Found Mindfulness After Tragedy
How one teacher brought Mindful Mondays to a school coping with tragedy.
I didn’t personally know two of them, but I knew her. I remember long locks of black hair cascading down her back as she sat in the front row of my English 9 College Preparatory class. I remember a confident voice convinced of an auspicious future as a K-9 police officer. I remember a grateful granddaughter of an idolized immigrant. What I would rather not remember right now is that she is among three students the Franklin High School community tragically lost in less than two years to what the media deems a public health crisis. I don’t think I need to spell it out.
“What if?” I feebly mustered through quivering lips at a recent grief and loss workshop in the FHS multipurpose room. “What if I had introduced mindfulness to her three years ago? What if I had filled her emotional toolbox with strategies to help her cope, persevere, and ‘fail well’ like I did with nearly 160 FHS students this school year? Would any of it have made a difference in her life? Would she still be here today?”
“Damn it. She needed this. The three of them needed this. They all need this.” Unbeknownst to me nine months ago, I needed this, too, to deal with what was to come.
August 8, 2017. A table decorated with incense, candles, and other foreign paraphernalia welcomed me for my 13th preservice at FHS, four days of structured collaboration for educators to reflect on our goals and prepare for classes in the new school year. An African American woman, whom I will refer to as Tara, introduced herself and encouraged my peers and me to open our minds to what awaited us that morning. Three minutes of meditation preceded the most enlightening presentation ever, one that challenged my naïve misconceptions about meditation, introduced me to a world I had never before encountered, and propelled me—personally and professionally—to jump on the mindfulness bandwagon.
I cannot lie. I had never heard of mindfulness until that morning, and that day was the first time I had ever meditated. Hence, I had no clue about the practice I was going to introduce to 160 students over the next nine months. Rather than reinvent the wheel—a habit we educators often subscribe to—I perused Amazon and relied on its recommendations to steer me towards the nearest Barnes & Noble, where I eventually walked away with a physical copy of I Am Here Now by the Mindfulness Project. On August 14, 2017, I trepidatiously introduced Mindful Mondays to my English classes.
DJ Pandora concocted a halcyon mix of lulling rainfalls and crackling fires to kick off that initial Monday in room HH7. After five minutes of journaling about the weekend and a less-than-elated discussion thereafter, I prepared my students for the upcoming three minutes. Gulp. I have to admit—as many of my students did in reflections nine months later—those initial three minutes were excruciating. Reluctant students fidgeted in their seats, occasionally opened their eyes to scan the room, and giggled sporadically. Then I rang my singing bowl to conclude our initial introduction to meditation, which Tara wholeheartedly promised would help my students and me focus better for the remainder of the class period.
Well, she lied.
When I inquired about each student’s mood before and after the three minutes of meditation, responses varied from tired, hungry, and apathetic to angry, perplexed, and uncomfortable. Sadly, my students were anything but focused for the duration of the class period. Sigh. Welcome to Mindful Monday.
The following Monday, I gave my students something to chew on—literally and figuratively—by asking them to engage their five senses while eating a piece of Double Bubble. Before the students ripped through the wrapper and devoured the coveted piece of gum, I prompted them to interact with it and describe its texture and scent. The Monday thereafter involved a practice of letting go: blowing up balloons and pretending to relinquish intruding thoughts into them. Afterward, I read 160 journal entries about their experiences—a daunting yet enlightening task, because my students (not all, but enough) were gradually jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon, too. Thus, I trekked on.
Inspired by a coping skills class I participated in with my nine-year-old daughter, another Mindful Monday that quarter focused on filling your “bucket” and the buckets of others with positive words of affirmation, an antidote to critical comments. (Shout out to Hailey, whose challenges in and out of the classroom have compelled me to enroll in classes ranging from surviving parenting to acquiring coping skills.) When I saw Robert Emmons’s gratitude research highlighted in the TIME Mindfulness special edition, I knew it was the next message I wanted to share with my students.
November 6, 2017. I kicked off a Month of Gratitude by giving my students the opportunity to write a thank you note to someone. In each Monday class that month, I passed out gratitude grab bags—full of candy, granola bars, and Goldfish crackers—to ten random students, encouraging them to give out thanks (and snacks) to people in their life. The following Monday, the students who had delivered the letter or grab bag said they felt blissful after the experience, which I hope resonated with them beyond the month of November.
The remaining Mondays of the year focused on identifying and analyzing their physical and emotional needs at school and at home and then reflecting on their interpersonal relationships with their peers and their family. With this portrait of their lives in mind, as the end of the year encroached upon us, students considered their “wins” or successes and their “losses” or failures of 2017.
Every Monday class concluded with another three-minute meditation. And just as Tim Bono conveyed in his book When Likes Aren’t Enough, “Over time meditation became [well, somewhat] easier” for my ravenous students.
Future and past
January 8, 2018. A brand-new year, a brand-new quarter, and a brand-new unit of mindfulness, which I hoped my students hungered for after a two-week hiatus from my singing bowl. I devise bucket lists of my own every January, and I decided to encourage my students to do the same for our first Mindful Monday of the new year.
To help my students grasp the concept of a bucket list, we first viewed a YouTube clip from the film The Bucket List starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. Then, I instructed them to journal their aspirations for their relationships, education, and health in the new year. Next, I presented my tangible bucket list, with items such as introducing my daughter to my absentee father, hosting a slammin’ ’90s-themed party for my fortieth birthday, visiting a college campus with my niece, and traveling to a European country.
The following Monday, my students shared their bucket lists, full of short- and long-term aspirations such as acquiring a driver’s license, saving money, earning a certain GPA, and donating blood. The quarter concluded with a discussion about the benefits of writing about goals, speaking about goals, and being inspired by the goals of others.
On the road to achieving our goals, we are bound to experience failures, setbacks, and challenge. So I guided my students to visualize a place to help them cope whenever they experienced what The Deepest Well author Nadine Burke Harris describes as “positive stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress”—somewhere like their room or their favorite place to visit. The week after, we focused on identifying the areas of the body where you can feel your stress, inspired by my coping skills class.
April 30, 2018. As we reached the end of the school year, I instructed my students to present a mashup of the Mindful Monday activities that resonated with them. Among the most popular ones were those (formerly excruciating) three minutes of meditation, a month of gratitude, exploring how feelings impact the body, reflecting on wins and losses of 2017, and writing a bucket list.
Afterward, I passed out surveys asking about the overall benefits of mindfulness. Sixty-nine out of 116 students concurred that their peers would benefit from explicitly learning mindfulness at FHS. Seventy-five students agreed that among all four grade levels, FHS juniors in particular would benefit from paying attention on purpose. I am not surprised. After all, she was a member of the FHS junior class.
Sadly, she and I will never experience a Mindful Monday in room HH7. And as much as I yearn to relinquish this somber reality into a balloon, I am not quite ready to let her go. However, she will be in my mind as I start another school year of meditation, gum chewing, thank you notes, gratitude grab bags, bucket lists, and sharing in all the wins and losses of defeated, hopeful young people who continuously inspire me as a mother and as a teacher. Learning how to pay attention on purpose to the simple yet awe-filled moments of my life—from the bud of a flower sprouting on my weed-infested lawn to the creases on my daughter’s mouth as she smiles—is the small way I will honor her memory.