Senior Brandon Crowder went from an F to an A in math class not by studying harder or getting a tutor — but by sitting silently in the dark, twice a day.
That’s what he and a group of his classmates at New Horizons School, on Hallock Avenue in the Hill, were doing on a recent morning at 8:45 a.m., as they have been since November.
The twice-a-day 15-minute sessions, known in the school as “quiet time,” are set aside for the practice of Transcendental Meditation. Several dozen students at the small alternative high school learned the mantra-based technique last fall as part of a school initiative to reduce student stress and improve behavior.
Every school day, in the morning and the afternoon, Crowder and his classmates sit in silence in darkened classrooms, practicing the same meditation technique that the Beatles learned in India from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Students and teachers at the school learned the technique from Richard and Gail Dalby, local TM teachers funded by the David Lynch Foundation. Lynch, the director of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, is an ardent TM meditator and supports its teaching in schools.
The effect, said Principal Maureen Bransfield, has been dramatic. The school is calmer and quieter. In surveys, the school’s meditating students report that they now fight and argue less, accomplish more, and feel happier and less stressed.
Crowder said meditation has helped him to relax and focus, not try to ditch class every chance he got. His math grades have shot up as a result.
Crowder made those comments on a recent morning after polishing off a special bacon, eggs and doughnuts breakfast for the school’s meditators. The program is not mandatory, but it does carry one phys ed credit; students who don’t want to meditate go to study hall or tutoring.
Crowder and his classmates met for breakfast immediately after the morning “quiet time” session. Each student uses his or her own secret mantra, received from the Dalbys.
The Dalbys, who joined the students at the breakfast, said the TM technique cannot by easily summarized. It’s not accurate to say that students “focus” on their mantra, they said. The technique is “automatic” and “natural”; less a matter of doing than non-doing.
Principal Bransfield (pictured) said her school came to TM after realizing that “our kids are stressed and traditional therapies are not working.”
Students at New Horizons are arguably under greater amounts of stress than those at other high schools. They arrive at the alternative high school for a variety of reasons, including special educational needs and significant behavioral problems. Students may be on probation or have experienced trauma of some kind.
Bransfield said she initially spoke with Dr. Rajita Sinha, a psychiatrist at the Yale Stress Center. “She showed us scans of the brain” showing the effects of meditation. After that, Bransfield sent New Horizons staff out to various mindfulness and meditation workshops in nearby states.
The school eventually chose TM because, “the data is so strong,” Bransfield said. TM is one of the mostly widely practiced—and studied—meditation techniques.
“The statistics are amazing,” Bransfield said. “This is cutting edge.”
Bransfield shared survey results showing a self-reported increase in happiness and decrease in stress. And, at the breakfast, students offered anecdotal evidence as well.
“It’s actually helping me sleep more,” said Krystal Fuller, a senior. “I use it at home, too. It feels like stress is being released from my mind.”
“I’ve cut down seriously on my smoking,” said Aaron Valles, a junior. He said he was initially skeptical, but thought, “OK, it’s a free credit. Whatever, but it doesn’t make any sense.” After a couple of weeks, he noticed it was working. He would go into quiet time feeling stressed and come out, just 15 minutes later, feeling relaxed.
“I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to do it,’” senior Nadeea Fair recalled. Then, just like Valles, after a couple of weeks, she noticed it was working. “You can feel your body relaxing.””
“You can feel the tension leaving your body,” said senior Dainara Rose.
“I love it,” said Eleeya Ward, a junior. “Usually my mind was very cluttered. It was never really resting until I started meditation.”
John Tarka, an English teacher, said he has seen a “dramatic” shift in the school, as a feeling of “calmness” has taken over. The most striking evidence is that teachers don’t have to battle with students about cell-phone use during quiet time. Phones might come out in English or math class, but everyone puts them away for meditation. “They’re able to put social networking on hold.”
“It’s incredible,” said Diana Gregory, a math teacher. “The disposition of the students has changed.” They’re interested in school; they’re happy. “That aggression is gone.”
She pointed to Crowder, and said he had been failing her Algebra II class. Then he started meditation. “He has an A in my class right now,” Gregory said. “The only change has been TM.”
“I feel more relaxed,” Crowder (pictured showing Bransfield his new tattoo) said. “I’m able to sit here and concentrate.” Before he’d found himself distracted by “everything, the streets, trying to get out.”
“I would not come to school,” he said. “Now I come to school. I really didn’t like being around a lot of people. It’s given me the opportunity to be somebody else.”
Cristina Martins, the school’s social worker, said the number of referrals to the school’s “redirection room” for misbehaving students has “drastically decreased” since the introduction of quiet time.
“It’s jaw dropping. It’s a little shocking,” said Bransfield. Meanwhile, the student who aren’t meditating “continue to be a challenge,” she said.
Next year, Bransfield said, she’s planning to partner with the not-for-profit 108 Monkeys to bring yoga classes to New Horizons. That might appeal to some of the students who don’t take to meditation. They might just find themselves slowing down, focusing on their breath, and letting stress drop away.