By Brent Purple Oliver
The building squats before me, its institutional brick configuration painfully reminiscent of so many others I’ve attended. Or, more accurately, been incarcerated in.
Flagpole out front. Bike racks. Oddly opaque windows like glazed eyes with no soul glowing behind them. A general atmosphere of despair and the wildfire stink of teenage hormonal insanity.
Not really. That’s just pointless writer talk. But I am standing in front of a high school, and high school sucks. It’s a shitty time in a person’s life. So many expectations, so much pressure and so little control. Not to mention the threat of horror and embarrassment around every corner. I remember it well because we humans evolved with a negativity bias and the shock of it all is still seared into my psyche.
It’s even worse now.
When I was in school, if you fell down the stairs or let an apocalyptic fart in Social Studies, people had to hear about it by word of mouth. But now, pretty much everything is instantly blasted onto social media.
If someone scarfs down a piece of public-school pizza (which is hopefully still rectangular) then barfs it across their tray, half the cafeteria will be gleefully uploading their eyewitness account before the puke is even cool. Some lucky fool may even catch it on video. By the time that poor kid gets home, 80% of the civilized world is chortling over their slip-up and there’s no escape. The potential for everyday ridicule is infinite.
Today, I’m going back to high school to teach mindfulness and I have some trepidation about it.
I’m 44 but my memories from back then are still naggingly awful. It’s easy to recall all the scorn, shame, fear, and uncertainty. Not to mention the fact that every adult is hounding you to figure out what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. As if being a teenager isn’t hard enough.
Even though I’m teaching and not a student, I’m not sure that makes much difference. I still feel like some popular kid is going to make fun of me. The only good news is I’m now too fat to stuff in a locker.
I wish someone had introduced me to meditation when I was a 15-year-old freaked out weirdo. A non-religious, universal way to deal with stress and overpowering emotions? Hell, yeah. It wasn’t available to me, but that only makes me more determined to bring it to these kids.
It’s surreal to be wandering through high school hallways again, seeing all the hand-drawn posters on the walls, the announcements for dances and clubs and teams. Thankfully, the bell hasn’t rung yet so I’m spared the crush of pubescent humanity rushing to and fro, making out up against the walls and staring at my frayed jeans. Are frayed jeans still cool?
I get to room 109 a little early and the door’s closed because another class is still going on. I’m happy to wait in the hallway like a proper juvenile delinquent, but that seems suspicious in these days of heightened security, so I knock.
A beleaguered-looking teacher ushers me into chaos. There are probably 30 kids in the room but it’s hard to tell because only about half of them are at their desks. The other half are wandering around and pretty much all of them are talking at once. Approximately 100% of them are using their phones.
Some of the hubbub dies down when I walk in (no doubt due to my commanding presence). One guy lounging in his chair looks up from his phone and gives me a practiced, popular-kid once-over.
“Who’s this cool guy?” he asks in his outdoor voice.
Here we go, I think.
“This is Purple,” the teacher announces. “He’s here to teach mindfulness meditation to the next class.”
Everyone immediately loses interest in me and returns to ignoring school.
“It’s not usually this bad,” the teacher tells me. “They’ve been like this for a week; I dunno what’s wrong with them.”
“No worries,” I say. “Just do what you do and I’ll stay out of the way.”
For the next 10 minutes she attempts to teach these creatures, but they absolutely aren’t having it. She’s obviously good at her job, but sometimes it’s just impossible. Several of the kids actually start gathering their things and moving toward the door.
“Sit back down!” she yells. “We still have five minutes.” The students more or less comply, and I’ve never seen the act of sitting performed so sullenly.
When the bell finally rings, the kids fling themselves out of the room and into the churning fury of the halls. It’s like Charybdis out there. New kids start trickling in and side-eying me as they take their seats. The butterflies in my stomach flap harder, reminding me that I’ve apparently never gotten over being nervous in school.
As soon as I get started, though, all that falls away. It’s one of my gifts. Once I’m talking, I’m badass.
I ask if anyone is willing to share why they chose to take a mindfulness class. This gets mostly blank looks. Those who choose to speak all say the same thing: because we’re fucking stressed out.
Yeah. That’s what I thought. High school sucks.
I keep talking. The kids who are into it ask intelligent questions that delight me. Their curiosity, though, is not infectious and most of the others play on their phones. I continue to wax poetic about the benefits of meditation until I realize there isn’t much time left to actually meditate.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s do a short, guided meditation.”
Silence. Crickets. Bacteria live their lives and die. One student falls asleep.
“Perfect,” I chirp. “Let’s go.”
The uninterested ones really make their presence known during the meditation. There’s plenty of snorting and giggling and chairs scraping and phones bleeping and the kind of whispering that isn’t meant to be secretive. The butterflies return.
The bell rings. Not my bell, to signal the end of meditation—the school’s bell. 80% of the kids lurch out into the sweaty stream of humanity in the hall; I’m left with the shy ones who want to know more but don’t want anyone to see them wanting to know. They’re like skittish horses before a thunderstorm, milling about and flaring their nostrils.
A couple of them slowly approach and ask tentative questions.
I try to answer them with some brevity since I love talking about this shit and don’t want to overwhelm them. With some surprise, I realize I’m in my element. Talking to teenagers about meditation is awesome. I’m suddenly way more thrilled than nervous. I give them all my card with instructions to email me with any other questions, to please reach out if this practice brings up anything confusing or scary.
I chat with the teacher for a few minutes so I don’t have to mix with the teenage torrents outside. She’s excited about how it went and invites me back to do it again. The excitement rises back up. This is fucking great.
After the bell corrals everyone into new classrooms, I make my exit. This time, I’m not as twitchy walking the corridors. There’s a sense of calm accomplishment at what I’ve done. Just because my high school years had been hell doesn’t mean everyone has to go through that. Maybe I can smooth it out for some of these kids, make their journeys a touch easier, a tad happier, a smidge more equanimous. It’s an extremely happy thought.
Hope in the hallways of a high school. Something new to me.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website BrentOliverMindfulness.com for more information.
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