Mantras Before Math Class

After growing up with Transcendental Meditation as a spiritual practice, the author visits public schools where it’s being used as a simple tool for stress-reduction and well-being.

By Jennie Rothenberg Gritz   |   The Atlantic
I
n 1974, the year before I was born, my parents had a small wedding in my aunt’s living room and then spent their honeymoon becoming teachers of Transcendental Meditation. Those were the days when just about everyone seemed to be doing it. “Plainly,” wrote the author Adam Smith in The Atlantic’s October 1975 cover story on meditation, “TM was the greatest thing since peach ice cream.” Meditation was enough of a cultural phenomenon that Woody Allen could use it as a punch line. The L.A. party scene in Annie Hall ends with Jeff Goldblum’s character placing a businesslike call to his instructor: “Yeah, I forgot my mantra.”

Considering how many 20-somethings learned to meditate in the 1970s, one might have predicted an explosion of meditating schools in the 1980s. Instead, Americans mostly forgot about the trend as they settled into the Reagan era. My parents were exceptions: They enrolled me in a small private school where the day began and ended with TM. It was an idyllic childhood in many ways, but my classmates and I always knew we lived in a bubble. One summer, at a resort in the Catskills, I listened as my aunt tried to explain my upbringing to a couple of her friends.

“Sure, I remember TM,” one woman replied. “I guess some people got caught up in meditation, just like some people got caught up in drugs.”

“And the rest of us,” her husband finished, “grew up and moved on with our lives.”

So I was fascinated when meditation recently started becoming mainstream again. Coworkers told me about mindfulness apps they were trying and friends mentioned yoga retreats they were planning to attend. The general idea seemed to be that meditation was not so much a technique for spiritual enlightenment as a common-sense lifestyle habit, like getting enough exercise or eating green vegetables. The insurance company Blue Shield featured a silhouette of an iconic meditator—legs crossed, hands turned upward on knees—in a recent brochure called “Ways for a balanced well-being.” A July New Yorker article by Jon Lee Anderson described a Cuban-born Miami entrepreneur as “a man of earnest American discipline. He meditates and does a hundred push-ups each morning.” In March, The Onion ran an article headlined “Annoying, Well-Adjusted Friend Even Fucking Meditating Now.”

Over the past 10 years, small meditation programs have started cropping up at public schools around the country, in major cities like Los AngelesNew YorkChicagoDetroit, and Washington, D.C. They’re most often found in low-income areas, where stresses have a way of compounding. When you spend time in these schools, as I recently did, you meet a staggering number of students who have been abandoned by at least one parent and left with relatives who are either overworked or unemployed. The kids themselves frequently take on after-school jobs and a lot of responsibility at home. One principal told me his students rush to and from school to avoid getting jumped or shot. All of this stress can put kids’ minds and bodies on high alert, making them fidgety and uneasy. A 2014 paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child compared the overload to “revving a car engine for hours every day. This wear and tear increases the risk of stress-related physical and mental illness later in life.”

It’s hard to change the circumstances that create this kind of stress, though plenty of people are trying. But if you teach kids to meditate in the meantime, the thinking goes, you can help them reduce the stress itself. That reasoning always made sense to me, as someone who has been practicing TM since childhood and seen the research on adults, especially for stress-related problems like heart disease. Struggling schools need lots of things: better food, stronger math programs, and higher-quality teachers, to name just a few. One of those needs seems to be a way to reduce stress so kids can absorb information and go into the world as well-balanced, successful people.

Still, I had a hard time envisioning how meditation programs actually worked when they were dropped suddenly into public schools. Who were the principals who brought them in—did they have hidden mystical streaks, or were their motivations purely practical? Were the teachers enthusiastic or did they see meditation as yet another gimmick imposed on them from the outside? And how did the students really feel about it? Did they roll their eyes when the meditation bell rang or did they actually enjoy it? What was it like to grow up with just meditation—and no spiritual trappings surrounding it?

Visitacion Valley Middle School sits at the top of one of San Francisco’s dramatic roller-coaster hills. It’s a deceptively pretty location: The surrounding neighborhoods, Visitacion Valley and the Bayview, are home to housing projects and the highest rates of violent crime in the city. Eighty-two percent of students at the middle school take part in the government’s free- or reduced-lunch program. “This is a neighborhood that’s had a lot of murders,” said Jim Dierke, the former Visitacion Valley principal, when I first visited a few years ago. “A lot of death, a lot of incarceration, and a lot of poverty and unhappiness.” In 2004, two of Dierke’s eighth graders found the decomposing body of a 19-year-old stabbing victim lying along the school fence. A few months after that, a gunman burst into the main office, threatening to shoot everybody in sight. Dierke vowed to make his school “an island of safety in a sea of trouble.” As he saw it, that meant not only improving their physical security but improving their ability to cope with the violence and tensions around them. That’s when he decided his school should try meditation.

Here, it’s worth noting that “meditation” is an extremely broad term. In schools, it can be used to describe a breathing exercise, a visualization, a positive affirmation, or even a mindful minute paying attention to the taste of a raisin. Transcendental Meditation is somewhat distinct among meditations because it’s a well-defined, trademarked program: Everyone who learns TM gets a mantra (a specific meaningless sound) and the same instructions for using it. Unlike mindfulness, TM doesn’t involve actively trying to change your mindset or be in the moment. All you do is mentally repeat your mantra, and it gets subtler and subtler, dissolving into an expansive silence. People describe the after-effects in different ways: In a recent BuzzFeed video, new meditators said they felt more “chipper,” less prone to tension headaches, and better equipped to deal with problems. But TM doesn’t involve a conscious effort to achieve any of these things. There’s something very automatic about it: You just start your mantra and transcend.

In public schools, TM is offered through a program called Quiet Time. The meditation itself isn’t mandatory: When kids don’t want to meditate, or their parents won’t sign their permission forms, they can just sit quietly, reading a book or staring out the window. In Northern California, Quiet Time is run by a local nonprofit called the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, which licenses the TM technique from a central organization and covers the cost of the program. (The fee for learning TM typically ranges from $360 to $960. In schools, it’s around $150 per student, including follow-up for the year.)

Dierke first heard about Quiet Time at a 2005 education conference. One of the speakers was George Rutherford, the African American principal who pioneered the Quiet Time program at his school in southeast Washington, D.C. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago if this was a good program to have, I would’ve looked at you silly,” said Dierke, a rotund man with a gray mustache and ruddy cheeks. “But Dr. Rutherford had the same sort of phenomenon going on his neighborhood that I had in my neighborhood. So I had the Quiet Time folks come over to meet my faculty, and the teachers wanted to do it. It’s been a very good partnership, assisting all of us in dealing with stress—not only the kids but the adults. My blood pressure got lower. I became less prone to yelling at people. And I see it in the kids. Meditation is kind of like the glue that holds everything together.”

Dierke retired a few years ago, but the Quiet Time program he started has carried on. On last year’s California Healthy Kids Survey, Visitacion Valley scored higher for happiness than any other school in San Francisco, including much more affluent ones. “A prime source of happiness at Visitation Valley is Quiet Time, a stress reduction program used at several Bay Area middle and high schools,”reported the research agency WestEd, which develops and administers the survey for the California Department of Education. In an article for The San Francisco Chronicle, a UC Berkeley public policy professor wrote about the happiness survey and other changes at Visitacion Valley: “In the first year of Quiet Time, the number of suspensions fell by 45 percent. Within four years, the suspension rate was among the lowest in the city. Daily attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, well above the citywide average. Grade point averages improved markedly.”

As a result of all this publicity, Visitacion Valley has earned a unique reputation among San Francisco educators. A few weeks ago, I watched the current principal, Joe Truss, lead a seventh-grade assembly. “When I meet people out in the community sometimes, they tell me, ‘I hear really good things about this school!’” Truss boasted to the students. “And the first thing they always talk about is Quiet Time. A lot of other principals are trying to copy our style.”

One of the first principals to adopt the program after Dierke was Bill Kappenhagen, the principal of Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School, just down the street from Visitacion Valley. Kappenhagen told me that after he became Burton’s principal, he started turning to Dierke for regular advice. “He was the president of the principals’ union, an older guy who was revered in the community, revered by the board of education.” During one of their phone check-ins, Dierke invited Kappenhagen to an eighth-grade assembly.

Kappenhagen welcomed the chance to sell the students on the virtues of Burton. But before he began his pitch, Dierke said he had something to show him. “He turns to me and says, ‘Watch this, Kappenhagen!’ Then he rings a little bell—ding, ding, ding!—and all of a sudden, all these eighth graders, who are squirrely as all get-out, become really centered and a hush falls over the auditorium. I was floored. I was like, ‘What is this?’”

At first, Kappenhagen wasn’t sure he wanted to bring Quiet Time to his own school. He’d just taken the helm there and he didn’t want to change the daily class schedule. But he was reluctant to say no to Dierke right away. So he put the program to a vote, telling his teachers it would extend the school day by 30 minutes. “I never expected them to go for it. But they were so interested! I think they were exhausted because they’d been trying all kinds of strategies and nothing yet had stuck. They were like, ‘We’ll try anything to get these kids to stop fighting and swearing at each other.’” That was in 2009. Since then, Kappenhagen said, “It’s a calmer school. And it’s not like I have more deans or security guards or teachers. It’s the same staffing structure. The school community has been given space to decompress.”

Another principal, Miguel Rodriguez at Redwood High School in nearby Redwood City, told me he heard about TM from the previous San Francisco superintendent, Carlos Garcia. “I asked him, ‘How do you do good work in this job—but not at the cost of your life or your family, not at the price of a divorce or health issues?’” recalled Rodriguez. “TM was one of the tools he recommended to me.”

Last year, Rodriguez brought Quiet Time to Redwood, an alternative public school for kids who are behind in credits at traditional high schools. Most of the students come from high-poverty backgrounds—they share homes with numerous families and work after school to help their parents pay the bills. All of that makes it hard for them to do their homework or stay focused in class. Their fatigue was obvious during the Quiet Time session I observed there: At least two students fell into a sleep deep enough that the teacher had to wake them afterwards.  

“The meditation is not just for students, to be honest with you,” Rodriguez told me. “It’s also for staff. Because this work can be daunting.” Rodriguez said he originally went into education instead of going to law school because it seemed like a more powerful form of social-justice work. “It has the power to eradicate the cycle of poverty forever.” But at Redwood, he said, “We don’t get the kind of gratification that you might get at a lot of other schools: ‘Look, Johnny got into UC Berkeley! Woo-hoo!’ We don’t see a lot of letters of acceptance.”

Unlike his students, who get dedicated periods for Quiet Time, Rodriguez has to find creative ways to fit his meditation in. On his way to work each morning, he charges his electric car for 20 minutes and meditates inside. In the evenings, he takes Ed.D. courses at Mills College and squeezes in a meditation during the dinner break. “When I stick to that routine, I’m able to come home and be present for my wife and our little daughter,” he said. “I’m able to process the burdens of this lifestyle much, much better.”

 
 

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