In a big inner-city public high school, in a midwestern city, in my classroom, I start every class period with one minute of stillness. I am a mathematics teacher.
This began in the fall of 1997 with one particularly disruptive class. Out of not knowing how else to quiet things down, I started class one day talking about how we react to what goes on around us. We react to our friends, to the teachers, to each other. We react to the loud speakers, the classes next door, the commotion in the halls. We are bombarded by outside events. So I invited them to breathe in, straighten up the spine with feet flat on the floor, and be still for sixty seconds. Not to react to anything. I rang a bell, closed my eyes, and breathed. When one minute passed I rang the bell again, breathed slowly, thanked them for the minute in which they gave their best, and invited them to thank those nearby. From this spontaneous response to one difficult class, I have continued to start all my classes in the same way. This is the fifth year.
In the beginning, it was questionable as to whether the practice made much of an impact on that disruptive class. Some students humored me and others ignored me, but for that one minute the noise level reduced at least a notch, so I continued. Over time, more students started thanking each other. First in jest, they playfully said to each other they would try better next time, and so it went.
I maintained the process, yet I never once made reference to meditation. I could do with my own minute what I chose without imposing anything on the students, and many days I practiced metta. About a month into the practice, in the middle of a lesson, there was a particular outburst from a student whom I had to escort out of the classroom. When we returned to the lesson, another loud student commanded, “Ms. Baer, I think we need to do that minute thang again!” Vulnerable as I was, I closed my eyes in that class.
One day when I was delayed, a student spoke out, “Let’s marinate,” and rang the bells. Everyone did the one minute with him! From then on others wanted their turn to ring the bells. The noise and disturbances were reducing for the minute. The practice, however imperfect, gave even the most boisterous students a tool to use to settle the mind and body. I was convinced that it served not only me but the students as well.
In some of my advanced math classes, where discipline was not such an issue, there were mixed reactions. Most participated willingly in the minute of stillness, but a few were visibly uncomfortable and overtly resistant. I always thanked especially them for their minute of cooperation. Over time even these resistant ones became relaxed without having to work so hard at their resistance. It just was. A minute to do nothing.
This year one of my classes, mostly tenth graders, repeatedly requested to extend the minute of stillness even longer. So one day, with consent from everyone in the class, we did five minutes. When I rang the bell at the end, the stillness continued to linger. Wow! It was “awesome.” They said they liked it when it was so quiet. They have continued to ask for more time, so we agreed to extend the minute on Fridays.
Our one minute has produced all sorts of responses. Once, a parent complained to the principal, who assured the parent it was appropriately secular if it came from me. Last spring as a student handed in his final exam before leaving for the summer, with tears of appreciation in his eyes, he thanked me for the daily minute. He said it meant a lot to him. This year three students from a class next door come daily to join my class for the minute, afterward thanking their buddies before returning to their own classroom. Parents of former students have come up to me in the grocery store to tell me how much their son or daughter appreciated that minute. They thanked me.
If nothing else, our sixty seconds has given me a degree more equanimity to start each class. That has been reason enough to continue. It was a huge challenge to accept the chaos in that first loud and disruptive class. But for just that one minute I told myself to let go of all my judgment—I am the responsible teacher, I have to keep order, it is my right and duty to judge and correct. I learned to accept just what is in that one minute.
Over time the minute has softened me to my students. I have feelings of compassion for their being exactly where they are. Its authenticity comes across when I see little respectful responses, some thoughtfulness or a smile I would not have expected from them or from me. I continue to gain from our minute: to close my eyes and open my heart, to see the kindness that seeks an invitation to express itself from under the harsh exterior that circumstances have somehow created in my students. They show me myself.