An Oasis of Ok

Rolling my suitcase out of the office, I ambled down the bustling hallway. I wondered what my high school self might’ve thought at the sight of an adult, lost with a suitcase. I leaned into a group of young ladies and asked where room B56 was. They pointed down the hallway, glancing curiously at my luggage.

6 months ago, I had relocated to New York to join an extensive network of educational initiatives focused on social emotional learning, restorative practices and community building. I was delighted to return to the Pacific Northwest to join some of my dance family, Allegro Dance Company, for a weekend of performances at Fertile Grounds Festival. Into the Night was an exploration of life, love and loss. Through movement and music, my friend and director Ashley López, shared many real stories and raw experiences. With a number of family and friends facing challenging health situations, I was feeling especially raw and a bit vulnerable.

As soon as I entered B56, I was greeted by a warm smile and open arms. Maggie Steele, Peace in Schools Mindfulness Instructor, excitedly helped me get oriented with the space, encouraging me to remove my shoes if I wanted. We chatted about my transition to New York and the Mindfulness Course as I took in the visual set-up of the classroom. Tables were for backpacks, chairs stacked, away in the corner, student wisdom and affirmations were posted on the chalkboard. It was clear that the focus of the lesson was what would take place within the circle.

Students filed in, removing sneakers and boots and finding open yoga mats. One girl with a tight choker in a cropped sweater laid on her back and closed her eyes. I watched as a deep exhale released her shoulders flat to the mat. I followed suit, inhaling all my external frustration and exhaling, feeling my shoulders melt away from my ears. Amongst a room of strangers, I was able to let some of my worries and fears subside for a few moments. For the next class period, I could be present in this oasis of OK.

When students were acknowledged and welcomed into the space, we settled in for the period. Students shared their internal weathers, feeling a range of “cloudy”, “overcast”, “right before a thunderstorm”, “sunny”. Maggie reviewed previous lessons, having students share their thoughts and learning before moving into the day’s lesson. She likened the mind to a dog obsessed with a bone. Just as we train puppies, we can train our brains to learn to focus, to rest, be present and reset between moments of the day. We explored different ways to sit and practiced our meditation for a few minutes.

A co-teacher, the on-site PE teacher, led the room in some mindful movement. We laughed and overcame uncertainty as we tried to stay in rhythm, alternating sit-ups and passing each others’ left shoe around the circle.

Throughout the period, students and adults snapped to concur, congratulate and commiserate. At the end of the period, students were encouraged to pause before transitioning into the loud and boisterous hallways. One student laughed and said, “It’s cool. I’m feeling all zen.” Clearly, the recalibration helped him feel confident in navigating what the day had in store.

A practice of mindfulness in high school is invaluable. When I think of high school, I rarely remember lessons learned or grades received. Decades later, I more vividly remember the tummy drops, the lumps stuck in my throat, the warm wash of mortifying moments as I navigated high school. What choices might I have made if I not only memorized equations and history dates, but also the process of acknowledging my and others’ feelings and the practice of grounding down to recalibrate myself?

Peace in Schools offers one of the first courses students can elect to take for credit in lieu of traditional PE courses. I wonder what our schools and workplaces could be like if our nation’s prerequisites for high-school graduation, grants and scholarships included coursework that explicitly addresses and supports the emotional, mental and physical well-being of each individual in our community.

There’s an important shift happening — an increasing openness and valuation of the mental and emotional health of our youth in mainstream education. Check out what students had to say about their experience with Peace in Schools.

We need to continue to shift priority. Hearing high school students acknowledge stressors — watching young adults practice empathy, self-awareness and emotional regulation — THESE are some of the skills that will support 21-century students!


Written by Make Gerhenson

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“Makeda and I worked on mindfulness, breathing, exercising, ideas about sorting, prioritising and adapting to change.