A Conversation With an LWS Graduate: Aryavan McSweeney

Aryavan and Ishani McSweeney

We spoke with Aryavan McSweeney, a Living Wisdom School graduate who attended LWS from kindergarten through eighth grade. After graduating from Cal State Fullerton he worked as a filmmaker in India and northern California. He now lives in India where he and Ishani are developing new Education for Life schools.

Q: You were in kindergarten when you entered Living Wisdom School. That was a long time ago – do you remember your first years?

Aryavan: I do remember – because I have very positive memories of Living Wisdom School. So much so that I’ve dedicated a major chunk of my adult life to trying to spread the word about Education for Life, and I’m motivated by my experience at the school when I was younger.

I don’t recall many details of my time in kindergarten, but my general impression is that school was always fun and joyful. I remember looking forward to coming to school every day, and that was always true. I can’t imagine how I could have been better prepared for life after I left LWS.

Q: How was the transition to high school? You went to a highly regarded private school in Mountain View, didn’t you? Was it difficult in certain ways, or was it a breeze?

Aryavan: When I came to St. Francis, I was surprised to discover that I was a much more outgoing person than I had thought. I went to the first school dance and found myself wanting to meet people, and putting out lots of energy in a way that I wasn’t aware was part of who I was.

I think I was much more fearless than I imagined. So the transition was very good socially, but the shift to a more heavily structured, book-based academic system was less inspiring.

I didn’t find the academics too challenging, I just didn’t like it, because I knew from my experience at Living Wisdom what schoolwork could be like. But I was at an age when I was open to new experiences, and I just assumed “Okay, this is what high school is like.”

For most of the people I met at St. Francis, it was a natural continuation from elementary school, but it definitely wasn’t like that for me, and it’s part of why I’m highly motivated to try to see a change on a larger scale in schools everywhere.

All of the teachers at St. Francis were very sincere, and they were probably allowed more flexibility than at other schools, but it did feel like they were on a track from which they couldn’t deviate too far. Some of my teachers had amazing creative energy, but I missed the exceptional instruction at Living Wisdom School – and even more so when I went to college, where there were similar limits on how creative the professors could be.

I had nice relationships with some of my teachers at St. Francis, and the school felt really good generally, but the system was a bit on rails, and you could feel it.  I hadn’t been used to that, because even though the teachers at Living Wisdom School did have their daily lesson plans, it felt like every day was new and creative and different, and the highest priority was always on the needs of the individual students. In high school it was more like, okay, here’s the syllabus, and here’s exactly what we’re going to be doing every week for the rest of the year.

It was fine, in its way, because you do need to cover a certain amount of material, but the creativity of the instruction was very noticeably less. There was a lot of lecture in high school, and a lot less hands-on work – and, again, I thought, “Okay, this is what you do in high school.” But I’m much more aware now that the same information could have been delivered in a more inspiring way.

I felt very well-prepared socially for the transition, in terms of my ability to make friends and meet people. High school can be a little cliquey, generally speaking. Ours wasn’t as bad as some, but there were the usual groups – the athletes and the nerds and this and that – all of the distinctions you normally find because people tend to gather according to their interests.

But I do think it was also a product of the system, because at Living Wisdom School we were so deeply integrated, not only because we were smaller but because we had so many interactions between the grades on a very dynamic level. When I got to high school I just assumed I was going to be everyone’s friend, and in fact, by the end of high school I was vice president of the student body, and I’m sure my earlier experience helped.

I knew just about every person in my class, and maybe I didn’t have deep friendships with everyone, because it was four hundred people, but I felt I could talk to them all, and that there weren’t any insurmountable boundaries.

I had friendships across many different types of people and groups, and my feeling, at the time, was that it was a result of the way Living Wisdom School had prepared me.

A good example from my years at Living Wisdom was our all-school walks to the park for phys ed, and how each of the middle schoolers would pair up with a kindergartener or a first grader. And instead of it being a big, heavy, mandated thing, it was very lighthearted and natural, and we would end up talking to the person and getting to know them. But I was amazed, on the few occasions when I would see high schoolers interact with younger kids, by how different it was. And maybe it’s fine if it’s a friendly rivalry between the seniors and the freshmen, but seeing juniors and seniors not even be able to relate to the freshmen was mystifying to me.

And then, also, the way they related to older people. The way the students related to their teachers in high school was completely foreign and unfamiliar to me. And even when the teachers might have allowed some familiarity, it was such a contrast to Living Wisdom, in part because of the tremendous familiarity between the students and teachers, and between the younger students and other levels of students, where there was a soul-to-soul relationship, instead of it only feeling like a casual acquaintance. In high school, I noticed that a lot of my peers related really well to each other, but not so well outside of their own circle.

I did sometimes get stressed about grades, I think partly because so many of the people around me were worrying about them. But I was very much more interested in the social side of high school. And of course I know that people might misunderstand me when I say this, but I knew that having fun was my priority, and I saw the other things as a bit more transitory. And once I got into the rhythm of high school I was very successful academically, even though it wasn’t my primary interest.

I didn’t see academics as an end in itself. I would see people fall into a rut of studying with their nose to the grindstone, which is all right if it’s expressing who you are. And I was capable of studying hard when I needed to. But I saw the social aspect as being much more important, and I was less likely to believe people when they said, “You need to concentrate on studying so you can get into a good school.”

By the time I entered college, I had begun to feel that there was a bit too much emphasis on conforming my nature to fit into the surrounding environment. I went to Cal State Fullerton in Southern California, and the experience was responsible in a very large way for my coming onto a spiritual path at a young age, because there was such a strong contrast between what I had experienced at Living Wisdom, and the materialism I was witnessing around me, and how it wasn’t making people happy.

I saw that people were relating to academics from a  concern for material wealth – I’m talking about the students, not the teachers. The school was in Orange County, which has a very materialistic orientation, and the contrast with my earlier experiences was so striking that I was completely overwhelmed and mystified for a time. And then, not long after I left, I found my spiritual path because it was exactly what I needed. But I was mystified that people could be so obsessed with outward things.

Q: I assume you studied film, because it’s the field you’re working in now.

Aryavan: Yes. For a very long time I never really knew what I wanted to do. I picked film because I had to pick something, and I had enjoyed making videos and short films in high school, so I thought that until something else came along I would try it. I knew I wanted to do something creative, and film seemed like a good track.

Q: What was the transition like after college? Did you immediately start making films about the Living Wisdom Schools and related subjects, or did you enter the film industry?

Aryavan: In my last college semester I took a class called “The Biz.” The teacher was a very successful Hollywood producer who had produced the blockbuster Final Destination movies and other major films, and we were excited to have her with us. But what I remember most vividly was when she said to us, “You are going to have to work on projects that you’ll absolutely hate for at least five years before you can do anything you’ll like.”

That was her big inspiration, and it was at that moment that I realized I wouldn’t be working in the film industry. The vibe I got from the class was that this wasn’t the kind of industry I wanted to participate in, because it seemed extremely cold, and everything in the class was about money, which I guess makes sense for a class on “The Biz.”

She painted a picture that was informed by her own experience, and people obviously do make things they believe in, even in Hollywood. But it was very clear that I didn’t want to do things that I didn’t believe in, for any period of time.

So I started brainstorming ways to create my own series and pitch it directly to the networks. And that was something that had been instilled in me at Living Wisdom School. It was a complete refutation of the pervasive idea in the film business that you have to suffer in order to advance toward your goals, and not just work hard, but you have to subjugate your values if you want to succeed.

That’s something I found myself rejecting immediately, even as I saw my classmates nodding in agreement. So it set me apart, and I think it came from Living Wisdom School. Because we were taught to face our obstacles creatively and express positive, expansive values.

Again, those tendencies were latent in my own nature, even in eighth grade, where the teachers weren’t necessarily verbalizing those things, but we were definitely picking them up – that we could influence our circumstances in positive ways that would bring us happiness.

I don’t remember any teacher at Living Wisdom ever saying, “Live to be happy – don’t live to be rich.” But I knew the deeper values that were implied, and they were well-aligned with my nature. So when I was presented with opportunities to work purely for money, I rejected them completely.

My best friend in college entered the film industry, and he ended up creating a nice career for himself, but whenever I talk with him, he’s saying to me, “You’re living the dream – and how did that happen?”

He works for Apple and he’s making outrageous sums of money. He’s been very successful and he has a good life. He has a wife and a new child, and they’re happy, but something’s missing and he knows it. And our lives could not have gone in more opposite directions after college.

I wasn’t planning to make films for the Living Wisdom Schools. I had no long-term plans, except for maybe going back to LA and trying to build a creative life for myself.

Just before my senior year in college, I went to India as my graduation present, and I met Swami Kriyananda, the founder of the Living Wisdom Schools. I was still planning to come back and try to create something in the film world, but then my life led me in mysterious ways in a different direction.

The trip to India was super cool. The moment I showed up, I discovered that Swami wanted to film a series of TV programs, and that he wanted to hire people he knew. In the meantime, the original videographer suddenly couldn’t come to India, and I got the job.

So I’m suddenly recording TV programs, which is way above my pay grade in terms of the skills I’d learned in school, and I ended up learning more about video from that experience than from school. I had to do lots of things I wasn’t comfortable with, and it was like a postgraduate education. [Laughs]

Q: There must have been wrenching times, when you wondered where you were going.

Aryavan: I had this weird mental logic, where I would tell myself, “Okay, I’ll go back to my old life, but at least I’ll have spent time working for an inspiring figure, so this is an awesome opportunity, and I’ll be able to go back and do normal stuff with what I’ve learned.”

Q: How did you meet your wife, Ishani, who works as your partner in film?

Aryavan: I was in India, and the producers of The Answer, a film about Swami Kriyananda’s youthful search and his meeting with Paramhansa Yogananda, were in India to work on the film.

I had signed up to do some behind-the-scenes work on the movie, and I had spoken with Ishani several times, and then I was in the room when she got a call asking her to do makeup for the film, because she had been a professional makeup artist for fashion and photography in New York.

She didn’t really want to do it, because she felt she was done with makeup, and she was enjoying not doing it.

Aryavan and Ishani — photo mockup.

I knew there weren’t going to be many people I knew on the film, so I said, “You have to do it, because I won’t have anyone to talk to if you’re not there!” So I convinced her, and she did it.

The experience of making the film was total chaos, with lots of craziness and conflict. It was one of the craziest professional experiences I’ve had, and through it all Ishani and I became closer and closer, just holding onto each other for a bit of sanity and positive magnetism.

What with all the intensity, we built a deep friendship in a very compact amount of time. We learned a lot about each other in those extremely intense months, and we decided that this would be a good thing.

Q: How did you come back to the Living Wisdom Schools as the focus of your work?

Aryavan: Toward the end of his life, in 2012 and 2013, Swami Kriyananda began saying repeatedly that I should work with children, that I should be in education, and I should work in Education for Life. And the upshot is that when he left his body in 2013 there was a clear direction that he had left for me.

I wasn’t uninterested in teaching – I did find the idea somewhat interesting, and I didn’t have anything else in my life that I was deeply passionate about. I enjoyed film, but I never felt that it was the one big thing that would feed me. So it took a while before I began to feel a flow of enthusiasm for Education for Life and the vision of how it could literally change the planet.

Q: When you began making films about Living Wisdom School, did that give you a clue? Was there a special energy that you wanted to have more of in your life? Because the first 6-minute film you made about the school is beautiful!

Aryavan: I feel it’s one of the best videos we’ve made. The content was so rich that it virtually made itself, and that made it so much easier for us.

We had a really great time making that film, and when I think about the experience, it’s obvious that I would be getting into education, although I was the last person to know. [Laughs]

At a point when I was still undecided about what I would do with the rest of my life, the thought came that I had been really happy as a child at Living Wisdom School, and that that level of happiness had faded over time, and maybe it was something about the school, and the people I’d been around.

I had loved helping with the LWS summer camps, and I was always looking for opportunities to come back and visit the school, and to be with the children in that environment.

I believe that’s a big part of what makes Living Wisdom School so exceptional. The environment is so uplifting and joyful on a deep vibrational level that it’s the kind of place you want to be. And when I think of how learning happens at LWS, I realize it’s the best possible environment for kids to learn and just be in. It was such a pleasant, joyful, uplifting place to be that when I look back at it now, it’s very clear why I would end up wanting to create that kind of experience for other children.

I hadn’t thought of getting into education, yet it now seems obvious, because everything about the Living Wisdom Schools is attractive to me, and I find it deeply inspiring.

Education for Life is not complicated. You just have to believe in being happy and joyful, and in having more of that experience in your life. And for me, sharing that experience with others, especially children, has been deeply fulfilling and gratifying.

Q: It’s amazing that for six hours of the day, and nine months out of the year, there’s an intense environment where kids can thrive – it’s like a super cosmic happiness school for kids, and a wonderful success incubator and nursery.

Aryavan: I totally agree. Of course, I’m biased, but when you visit the school and you meet the kids, and you hear the stories of kids who’ve come from tough backgrounds or tough schooling experiences, and you compare it with their experience at Living Wisdom School, the idea that you can create an environment where children can feel loved is already a huge win.

And then you add learning to the equation, and it’s brilliant. But even if we didn’t run a school, and if we just ran a place where children felt whole and safe and happy, that would actually be enough to guide them for the rest of their lives. And that we’re doing anything else is a bonus.

When a child has the opportunity to experience what that kind of pure happiness feels like, and to know that they can create it for themselves and navigate the world based on that feeling – who needs more than that, once they have that sense of themselves and who they are and what their abilities are, and the enthusiasm to do great things?

Our whole approach is about helping kids thrive during the years from roughly age six to twelve, when their feelings are at the forefront of their personal development, and helping them acquire a good mastery of their feelings as a tool of maturity, all while you’re recognizing the highest, appropriate use of the intellect.

We all have to deal with the four tools of maturity that kids develop in the years from birth to age twenty-four. You can see examples all around you, of people who have strong will power, for example, but it’s often directed in ways that aren’t going to give them happiness and fulfillment. And the true meaning of the intellect is that it needs the inward process of uniting the feelings and mind in expansive and wise ways.

Feeling is the one that always seems to get left behind in our current educational system. And so the intellect becomes a purely outward thing, where it’s all about grades and test results, and the feelings become nothing, because we just shove them aside and bury and disparage them. And then we’re surprised when people rebel, or when they have midlife crises, or they reach the pinnacle outwardly and realize that there was nothing in it worthwhile.

If you look at the graduates of Living Wisdom School, and the relationships they have with their work and their families and friends, that’s where you begin to see the potential for a revolution, because it’s offering the kids so much more. It’s telling them about life the way our lives were meant to be. This life was meant to be so much more fulfilling than people are giving it an opportunity to be. So, yes, we’re training people to be happy.

Parent Testimonial: Raju Parikh

I am delighted to share our experience of Living Wisdom School (LWS).

As an educator in the field of early learning at Stanford University, I know that the future of our society depends on its ability to foster healthy development in the next generation.

Extensive research on the biology of stress, conducted at the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, shows that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of the stress-response systems of a child’s body and brain.

Raju Parikh with her daughter, Raeva, in front of Auguste Rodin’s home during a 2015 trip to Paris. Click to enlarge.

Toxic stress can have damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health. Thus, learning to cope with adversity is an important part of any child’s healthy development.

The Harvard researchers found that when a young child’s stress-response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline.

As parents, we understand that we cannot save our children from life’s stressors. Having acknowledged this, the pressing issue for our family became how to provide our daughter with an environment that would nurture her spirit, her mind, and her soul.

In 2011, my husband and I came across Living Wisdom School’s website, after reading Autobiography of a Yogi and doing some research on meditation and spiritual living. The seed was planted for our family’s association with LWS, which would become an inspiring adventure for our daughter and our entire family.

Why did we choose LWS?

LWS is a rare environment where the founders have created a holistic approach to academic education that includes mindfulness and positive thinking, and where the teachers guide the children daily in consciously choosing kindness, joy, and happiness, with an emphasis on universal human values that nurture their strengths and positively reinforce their innate love of learning.

Raeva (r) and a friend cooperate on an assignment.

Here are some of the features that were important to us as a family, and that led us to select LWS and Education for Life as the right choice for our daughter:

  • Academics that provide our daughter with the skills she will need for her life’s work.
  • Self-regulating skills such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga, and an emphasis on teaching kindness and joy as paths to understand and cope with this complex, changing world.
  • Helping children develop a mindset of choosing happiness even in adverse circumstances, with a strong focus on emotional self-regulation.
  • Confidence development through healthy competition in an environment of mutual support and discovery, to help our daughter understand that excellence is an important goal to strive for in all facets of her life, while experiencing satisfaction in the process.
  • Mindfulness practice, which research has shown decreases stress and anxiety, increases attention, improves interpersonal relationships, and strengthens compassion.
  • Constant personal attention from teachers who devote tremendous energy to understanding each child’s unique strengths and weaknesses.
  • Teachers who are given the freedom and flexibility to adapt and refine the curriculum to challenge and support our daughter in achieving at her own, individual pace.
  • A caring, nurturing community of children, parents, and teachers who are working toward the common good for the children, their families, and the world.
  • A sense of “work” and “mission” that aims at serving humanity and creating caring, compassionate and accepting global citizens. The LWS teachers consistently model these values – they “walk their talk.”
  • The annual Theater Magic program that engages the entire student body, and enhances academic learning in ways that we cannot begin to adequately describe.

Our daughter’s experience at LWS has been a blessing both for her and for our family. She is eager to go to school every day and loves her school environment. I cannot think of a better definition of school success.

Finally, it has given us joy to come to a deeper understanding of Education for Life over the years, because it has extended into our family and helped us consciously define our goal of authentic parenting.

Our daughter is progressing well in her academic environment, as she learns to manage her stress, choose happiness, and be a joy-filled child. What more could we ask?

Raju Parikh Bio:

Raju Parikh is the Director of Early Learning Programs at Stanford University.

 

Parent Testimonial: Jack Dieckmann

My two children have attended Living Wisdom School for the last seven years. Before we discovered LWS, they were enrolled in four separate schools, and while each school had its merits, we never felt that they were completely right for us.

At LWS, I know without the slightest doubt that my children will be loved, taught, challenged, and nurtured every day – and what more could a parent ask?

The richness of the LWS Education for Life (EFL) philosophy arises from a deep, consistent valuing of the unique and special qualities of each child’s mind, heart, hands, and soul.

As an education researcher, I’ve studied human development and learning from a cognitive and social perspective, absent the key dimension of the soul (in the most expansive sense of the term). When I first became acquainted with LWS, I felt that my academic background would surely prepare me to understand Education for Life. I dutifully read the Education for Life book and tried to assimilate its ideas into my own thinking and the frameworks that I had studied in graduate school.

But there were problems with that approach. EFL is so much more than an abstract system that I could absorb and intellectualize with my rational mind. I read the book several times and could scarcely decipher its meaning, thanks to the theoretical prejudices that my education and experience had fostered.

But as the years passed, and I began to understand EFL in greater depth, I realized that it can only be truly studied and evaluated in the living arena of the child’s daily experiences in the classroom and playground.

I watched with wonder as both of my children began to thrive under this approach, and I was thrilled to see how their growth was positively reflected in key moments of our journey as a family.

I’ve been deeply impressed by the many ways our children’s consciousness and learning have expanded through their participation in the yearly all-school Theater Magic play, the literary journal, the spring art show, the music concerts, and the various culturally inclusive celebrations and field trips across the school year.

Whenever my son has experienced obstacles in his academic subjects, his teachers have had the freedom and flexibility to give him all the help he needed, and to adapt the curriculum and the teaching approach to meet his unique needs.

Throughout my years of observing the LWS teachers, I’ve been gratified to see how much energy they bring to noticing and valuing the gifts that each child brings.

An LWS teacher told me that my son always played a key role in initiating and sustaining deep class discussions about the subject matter, and that he offered stimulating perspectives that advanced learning for everyone – and this was in fourth grade!

It was typical of the feedback I receive in parent-teacher conferences, and on report cards (which are ungraded, because the richness of the students’ learning at LWS cannot be reduced to a simple percentage or letter grade).

My children have very different personalities, yet they have both found LWS to be a place of adventure, friendship, and safety, free from the anxieties and undue pressures associated with many other schools, especially “high-performing” schools.

My daughter has experienced tremendous acceptance and love throughout her journey at LWS. The school has fostered her identity as an artist, as a primary medium through which she expresses herself. At the end-of-year ceremony, I was so proud to watch her give her speech about the quality that the teachers had observed in her over the preceding year. I held my breath when it was her turn to celebrate her quality. But like all the LWS children, she gave her short speech with complete confidence to an audience of over 200 students, teachers, parents, and relatives. She was able to show such poise because she believed in what she was saying, and she knew that she was surrounded by a community of friends who were cheering her on.

Our experience of LWS has given me confidence that I am fulfilling my sacred duty as a parent to give my children an education of the highest possible quality; an education that will not only set them on a positive path to college and career, but will help them know that they have the power to choose happiness wherever they go. The joy and wisdom that have unfolded for my children and my family through the LWS community are boundless.

Jack Dieckmann, PhD, LWS Parent

Educational Researcher, Stanford University

Jack Dieckmann Bio:

Jack Dieckmann serves as Director of Research at youcubed at Stanford University, a nationally recognized initiative for inspiring, educating, and empowering teachers of mathematics by transforming the latest research on math learning into accessible and practical forms. Prior to joining youcubed, he was Associate Director for Curriculum at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), where he led the math team in performance assessment development. He received his doctorate in math education at Stanford in 2009. For the past 12 years, Jack has served as an adjunct faculty member in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP).

 

Self-Confidence

Children develop self-confidence through kindness and supportiveMiddle-school boy at Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, CA guidance. An excellent academic program, combined with attention to the individual child’s emotional needs, fosters exceptional and joyful learning.

Parent to Parent:

“My son’s teachers have demanded–and received from him–a level of excellence far beyond even what I expected. And they’ve done it without ever making school into a pressure cooker. He’s had fun all the way — six years now. His self-esteem is so high. Recently I had to drop him off alone at the first day of baseball practice. There were dozens of people, adults and kids standing around, and he didn’t know a single one of them, but he just jumped out of the car and walked right into it without even glancing back at me.”

“My children are completely comfortable at school, they are not afraid at all. In fact, since going to Living Wisdom School, they have developed such self-confidence they are not afraid of any new situation.”

“My child feels really secure. She knows no one is judging her, so she’s not afraid to try new things.”

“The kindergarten put on an improvisational dance program. All the other kids in the school were in the audience with the kindergarten parents. Afterwards, there was an all-school circle on the stage, and everyone was singing. I looked at the children’s faces, and they were so happy and so content. Later, I tried to explain it to the people in my office, but I couldn’t find words for it. I just knew my kids were loved and cared for, that all the children there were loved and cared for, and that I could never find a better place for my children.”

“The teachers are very positive. They see only the best in each child and endeavor to nourish that special part. Each Living Wisdom School teacher is on a spiritual path which includes meditation. The teachers have a wonderful clarity and joy which they infuse into our children daily.”

“My daughter can be herself at Living Wisdom School. When she was at public school I felt she was trying so hard to find out who she was supposed to be that she missed noticing who she actually is.”

“The children get so much love, they feel safe to be themselves. Then anything can happen: learning, growing, they are just wide open. They have so much self-assurance, so much confidence in their abilities, they can learn anything!”

Students and Parents talk about Living Wisdom School

If you are considering LWS for your child, we’ll be happy to put you in contact with parents who can talk about their children’s experience at our school. Please call us for a list of names and phone numbers: (650) 462-8150. Or email Living Wisdom School

Will your child be happy and successful at Living Wisdom School and beyond? Listen to what our parents and graduates say.

“I came across another big idea as soon as I entered Living Wisdom: I can choose to be happy. And it led up to another idea: that no one can make you unhappy, nor can you blame your unhappiness on other people, because it’s you who decides to be happy or not.” (Rewa Bush, class of ‘08, graduate of Los Altos High School)

“I don’t know what the exact statistic is, but most Americans’ number one fear is public speaking. The way I see it, public speaking is not restricted to speeches in front of large groups of people. Raising your hand and asking a question in class is “public speaking.” And sadly, some children are afraid to do this. They are afraid they will look stupid or people will think they are dumb because they didn’t understand something. The LWS school plays taught me to get over the fear of public speaking when I was very young. Now I am much more comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people. Granted, I still sometimes get nervous, but I have the confidence to try. Also, LWS included everyone in the school plays, so everyone received this beneficial experience. No one was or felt left out.” Genyana Greenfield August, Class of ‘06, graduate of Mid-Peninsula High School

“In sixth grade we started meditating every morning, more than before, and I found that it quieted the pools of my mind, which on some days were already boiling over by the time I arrived at school.” Rewa Bush, class of ‘08, graduate of Los Altos High School

Telephone conversation with Peter Abrams, (Class of ‘04):

Peter: Hi, Helen. I just wanted to call and say thank you.

Helen: What’s up, Peter?

Peter: I just received my acceptance to Stanford, and I know it would never have happened without you guys. Seriously, without LWS this never would have happened.

(Peter is now a sophomore at Stanford, majoring in history. He redshirted in varsity baseball last year and will try out for the team this year.)

“I am writing to say thank you. You taught me many things in my two years at Living Wisdom, but the most important, by far, was how to use common sense. In the theater business (and, frankly, in any business), there is always a delicate balance between doing what you’re told and acting instantly upon your own judgment. We memorize our lines and blocking, but if something goes wrong, we have to ad lib…we have to think on our feet and act accordingly. I owe my ability to do these things almost entirely to you, and for that I am most grateful.” Rose Frazier, Class of ‘06, is at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, sings in the San Francisco Opera Chorus, and performs with the Gilbert and Sullivan Lamplighters.

Email to teacher Gary McSweeney:

“When I was at Living Wisdom, I never really understood what you and the school were doing for me, and how incredibly fortunate I was to be in that situation. Looking back, I can see how much I took the entire thing for granted, your teaching style, the philosophy of the school, and the whole environment that surrounded it. In a way I think I really didn’t take advantage of all the help you were trying to give me, but even through all the troubles I gave you (even though they were all somebody else’s fault!), you managed to impart upon me the secrets of life, and indeed, the universe itself!

“In all seriousness though, it is especially easy for me to notice the difference in myself now because I am surrounded by people who are still in the state of mind that I was in when I came to Living Wisdom. Now, that’s not to say I don’t get in trouble anymore, or that I am a perfect child or anything (I am), but the way I view the world around me and other people in it has changed dramatically. Where other people are teasing or making fun of somebody in a joking way, I can really easily tell how that person is feeling about it, even more than just the seeing the look on their face.

“I can tell if they are not finding it funny, or they are actually hurt by it, even if they are acting as if they are fine. It doesn’t sound like much, but none of my friends understand when something like that is happening, and when I talk to them about it, they will look confused and say that they had no idea, or that they didn’t mean for it to be hurting the person. And I believe them. I don’t think they were doing it on purpose or anything, but it just shows that for some reason I am more aware about other people and my surroundings than most of the kids my age.

“It shows itself in other ways too, but that is the most obvious at least to me.

“Another one is the way I think about my actions before I do them. I spend a lot of time worrying about causing somebody else a lot of unnecessary trouble, and when I do (I never do), I spend the next few nights lying awake thinking about it and regretting it. I think basically what it boils down to is that I am just more aware about the world outside of myself, and I think that you are the one who showed me how to look at the world that way. And for that, I am forever grateful.” William Prince, Class of 08, graduate of Mid-Peninsula High School

“Throughout my time at Living Wisdom, I was constantly exposed to the ideas and truths behind all religions.” Rewa Bush, class of ‘08, graduate of Los Altos High School

“Before I came to Living Wisdom School, I used to have long philosophical conversations with my mom on the way to school every morning, and I feel that educated me more than filling in bubbles on worksheets in second grade. But at Living Wisdom, school and education were one, like they should be.” Rewa Bush, Class of ‘08, graduate of Los Altos High School

“LWS gave me the confidence to be able to handle the outside world. Because I had teachers who always believed in me, I learned to believe in myself. They pushed me to always do my best. This increased my capacity to do well, in school and in life. Basically “my best” got better.” Genyana Greenfield August, Class of ‘06, graduate of Mid-Peninsula High School

“One of the things I think is great about the math department at LWS is that everyone gets to work at their own pace. The children who are ahead learn to help the children who are behind them. And no judgment is passed about where a child is in her or his math book. Everyone is very supportive of each other. . Now, in high school it seems natural to me to help others when they are behind me or need help.” Genyana Greenfield August, Class of ‘06, graduate of Mid-Peninsula High School

“St Stephen’s strives for excellence in the arts, athletics, and academics. Of course, with everything there is to do at school, I am challenged and busy. The teachers are fun and encouraging. I have slowly started making friends. Friendships take time to occur. Unlike at Living Wisdom School, it has taken a long time to meet people who easily accept you. Through my short experience at St. Stephen’s, I have realized what an incredible learning environment was provided at Living Wisdom School. Going to school at LWS was like going to your extended family everyday.” Elliot Sakatch, Class of ‘05; Elliot moved to Austin, Texas with his family and enrolled at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School.

Peggy Sakatch, mother of Elliot, Class of ‘06, writes about Elliot’s new school when they moved to Austin, Texas: “We both miss LWS. There is something intangibly better about LWS, period. It’s stuff that’s all well described on the website (kids can be themselves, and wow, does that ever open them up to all that they can possibly accomplish and enjoy, etc.”

“As I was acting out the lives of great people on stage, I was developing life skills like confidence, while wrapping my mind around the fantastic ideas and words of Buddha or Hafiz.” Rewa Bush, Class of ‘08, graduate of Los Altos High School

“To me we are doing more than acting. We are telling a story of a legend. This year, the play was on the life of St. Francis, with whom I am familiar. It was very beautiful and moving. But last year’s play on the life of Buddha, about whom I knew nothing, was really interesting for me, because I had to act a story and culture I knew nothing about. I learned so much from Buddha. What a beautiful legend and story! Living Wisdom plays are a true treasure to me.” Lea Buonocore, Class of ‘08, graduate of Palo Alto Preparatory High School

“I love being on stage. I love the feeling I get when I am up there dancing or reciting my lines. I loved this play because I loved learning about the wonderful and interesting life of Buddha. I learned to be more compassionate and understanding of others.” Joy Barajas, Class of ‘07, graduate of Notre Dame High School, Belmont

“Gary (LWS middle-school teacher Gary McSweeney) says he honestly believes LWS students have successful interviews for high school, talk more easily in public, and relate more readily to adults because of the Living Wisdom Theater program. He knows firsthand because he has seen a huge transformation in his son, Bryan, who attended LWS from Kindergarten through 8th grade.

“In Kindergarten, Bryan refused to participate in the play at all. The next year he had a small part and the next year a little bigger part, and soon he had worked his way to the lead role. He would get very nervous, but he faced his fears and went on with the show. Later, as a high school freshman, he knew only one other person in the whole school, but he also knew that he liked performing, so he went to the drama department. There, he made many friends. Now in college, he has no problem at all talking in front of groups. As one of the speakers at a Living Wisdom School fundraiser last year, he cracked one joke after another! Gary attributes Bryan’s growth as an individual in large part to the theater program.”

(Excerpt from “Rules of the Theater,” an essay in the school literary magazine, Living Wisdom School Angels Have a Lot to Say, June, 2007, by Rewa Bush and Class of ’08, graduate of Los Altos High, and Hadley Sheppard, graduate of Notre Dame High School, Belmont.)

“Sinead scored exactly 1500 out of 1600 on the SAT for Math and English. The SAT now has three parts, and out of a total of 2400, she scored 2150. She had a perfect score on the PSAT in Math. She has also been recommended for enrollment as a National Merit Scholar and has a four-point GPA.

“Sinead also chided fellow students as they mocked their teacher who had his back to them. ‘That would never fly in my old school,’ she said. And they stopped.” (Ria Toolis, mother of Sinead Toolis-Byrd, Class of 03, who attended high school at Harker Academy and is a junior at U. C. Berkeley, majoring in Art.)

“During Freshman Orientation (at Menlo School), I observed that I noticed things other kids did not. I think I have a different level of awareness. I was also taken aback when teachers strongly encouraged freshmen not to be afraid of them. I thought, ‘Why would anyone be afraid of teachers?’” (Mara Schleck, Class of ’03, graduated from Menlo and is a junior at Georgetown University majoring in Economics.)

“When I went to India on a school trip, I realized that my experience performing the lives of Buddha and Krishna left me much more prepared than many of the other kids to get the most out of the experience.” (Mara Schleck, Class of ’03, now a junior at Georgetown University majoring in Economics)

“We asked Drew if there was anything he missed about LWS now that he is in high school. He said the one thing he misses is how much the teachers care about the students at LWS. He has great teachers at Menlo, but the level of caring is not the same. He is doing very well – he has only had a month of school. He was pleased to get an A on a physics test. He said he was well prepared by LWS for high school. (Suzanne Schleck. Her son, Drew, Class of ‘06, is a senior at Menlo School.)

“Hey! Wow, high school really is different. But you and Helen prepared me REALLY well. I’m sure you said something like this when I wasn’t listening, but it really seems like high school is about the people you meet. The school can push academics all they want, but having teachers who are unique and students who are, too, really seems to be important, which I guess is why I remember LWS being so ‘cool.’ It gives a good idea of what to look for in a school and hopefully in life.” (Drew Schleck, Class of ‘06, now a senior at Menlo School. Drew wrote this note to LWS middle school teacher Gary McSweeney as a high school freshman.)

High School Freshman Report Card Comments:

English: “Anjali has an upbeat attitude, good cheer, is meticulously prepared. A lively voice emerged throughout her writing. Thoughtful insights. She used language in a lively fashion.”

World Religions: “Rare student who has correct answers and thoughtful comments. Puts thought and effort into her homework consistently.”

Algebra: “Unfailingly polite and cheerful, does all the work, and seems to have a good grasp of the subject. I have at this point little concern about her doing well; I am more concerned about making sure that this class stays challenging enough to be interesting.”

Physics: “Anjali has been doing very well in physics this quarter. She’s a very responsible student, and I really enjoy having her in class.”

Jazz Dance: “Wonderful in class. Participates all the time. Stays focused and on task. A lovely dancer.”

(Anjali, class of ‘06, graduate of Menlo School.)

High School Freshman Report Card Comments:

Chemistry: “Rose continues to shine. I hope that she considers advanced study in one of the sciences; she’s good at them and really seems to enjoy herself as she learns.”

Humanities: “Through her frequent participation in class discussions, as well as the superb quality of her written work, Rose has once again demonstrated a solid command of the subject matter for Humanities.”

Mandarin I: “Your performance in this class is unimpeachable. You set extraordinary standards for all of us.”

Writing Workshop: “Rose has had a stellar trimester. She is a remarkably focused and diligent young woman. Two observations on Rose’s performance stand out: the consistency and seriousness of purpose she brings to her work, and her range and versatility. While she sees herself as most able in creative and imaginative work, I found her discipline and acuity in expository and analytical assignments to be equally impressive.”

Rose Frazier, Class of ’05, attended high school at The Bay School in San Francisco. Although accepted by Stanford University, Rose chose to enroll at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Catching up with Peter Abrams, Class of ‘04, at Herbst Theater in San Francisco.

Peter has maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout high school. As a freshman, he received the achievement award in both his Algebra and English class. As a sophomore, he repeated that accomplishment in Math and Japanese. His natural athletic talent and great work ethic paid off in sports as well. He was slated to play for the varsity baseball team in spring, having overcome an earlier football injury.

“The teachers are what made LWS even more special. My teacher, Gary, was also one of the most special people in my life. He helped me grow as a person so much; he was very real and down to earth. Gary understood me and knew how he could help me grow. He would put faith in me and trust me to do things I didn’t think I could do. He was a great influence on me, and we are still good friends to this day. The motto of LWS, which is ‘Education for Life,’ really shone through when Gary taught because he applied everything we did to life and how to deal with it.” (Ashim Ahuja, Class of ‘03, a senior at San Francisco State University majoring in Film.)

“This school did not just change me personally; it also inspired me in my goals in life. Every year we put on a play celebrating the life of a saint, sage, or guru, like Buddha, Joan of Arc, Krishna, Jesus, and of course, Yogananda. I was involved in the last three. [I played] a leper in the Life of Jesus, Shakuni, an evil uncle, in Krishna, and Yogananda as a teen in The Life of Yogananda. As Yogananda, I started to understand truly what a blessing this was. When I got on stage, I felt like I was in India, looking through his eyes, just as if they were my own. For those thirty minutes, I was Yogananda. This transformation I felt was like nothing else I had ever felt before…” (Ashim Ahuja, Class of ‘03, is a senior at San Francisco State University majoring in Film.)

Samantha Shireman writes in response to the news that the middle school had just returned from the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon:

“I loved reading Macbeth (seven years ago)…and still love it. (Samantha, Class of ‘04, a sophomore at UC Berkeley majoring in Physics.)

 

Inclusiveness Training at Living Wisdom School

Eric Munro’s two boys attended LWS from kindergarten through eighth grade. Eric tells how inclusiveness training at LWS helped his sons. Eric graduated in electrical engineering from MIT and has served as an LWS math and science teacher and math volunteer.


At the annual LWS family campout, I sat by the campfire and watched my older son play.

Zachary was playing with the younger kids, giving them piggyback rides.

The man next to me said he was impressed to see Zachary playing Frisbee with the younger kids earlier in the day. He said, “Zach made sure everyone got a chance to play. I thought it was remarkable.”

Zachary and Lucas Munro with father Eric
Zachary and Lucas Munro with father Eric. (Click to enlarge.)

Although I felt some natural parental pride, it quickly turned to gratitude for our school. I knew that Zachary’s wonderful expansive heart wasn’t solely to my parenting. I knew it came most powerfully from the eight years he spent in the school.

Ever since my sons entered LWS, I’ve been aware that one of the most important influences on our sons was how it developed their sense of inclusiveness. As parents, it made our lives a lot easier, and I’m sure it will help them in high school, college, and adult life.

Starting in Kindergarten, the children at LWS learn to play and work together. They learn that it just feels better to include others and not exclude anyone who wants to play.

The remarkable part is that these “rules” aren’t enforced in the school as rigid principles to be obeyed under threat of punishment. On the contrary, the teachers help the children be aware that they are happiest when they expand their hearts to include others.

Three of the LWS “School Rules” lay it out Practice Kindness. Be a loving friend. Use your will to create good energy.

On the playground, the single most important rule is “You can’t say ‘You can’t play.’”

How do the kids learn to practice these important life principles naturally, without adult reminders?

Affirming the rules in the classroom is the first step. But it makes a much bigger impact that the teachers model the rules constantly.

I’ve recently served as a volunteer during snack and lunch breaks. I was aware at second hand of the inclusiveness and conflict resolution training the children receive, but seeing it in action is amazing.

During snack period one day, two kindergarten girls got into a disagreement. When the teacher saw that one girl was crying, she sent all of the other kids to another teacher’s class and spent ten minutes leading the girls through a conflict resolution.

First, she had them take turns talking about what happened, and how they felt. As they talked, she made sure they looked into each other’s eyes.

Then she said, “What’s a way you can play with this toy that will make you both happy?”

The girls talked and arrived at a plan to share the toy. The teacher said, “Good. Then, next time, let’s do that!”

Later in the day, I visited a public library where several small children were playing outside. Some of the kids were arguing, and one child was crying.

The teacher walked over and said, “Be nice to your friends,” and then she walked away.

I thought, “What a difference!” It struck me that it was bound to affect their future development, their personalities, and the adults they would ultimately become.

No amount of training can turn a person into a saint. But from my experience of having been a child, adult, and parent, I’m struck by how much happier a child will be by receiving this training in awareness of others. I’m struck also by how much more ably they’ll relate to others as adults, thanks to the constant, active guidance of the teachers at LWS.

I’ve had several roles with LWS – I’ve been a parent of two boys in the school. I’ve been a classroom teacher and a math and science volunteer. Being around the school I’ve often heard visitors or new parents remark, “There’s such a strong feeling of camaraderie between the kids in this school!”

You can see it every day on the playground, particularly among the children who’d been at LWS for several years. This tells me that the LWS experience deepens that quality in them. An older child lifts a young one to help him shoot a basket. The older kids giving the younger kids extra turns so they won’t be knocked out of a ballgame. Throughout the school, there’s a pervading awareness of other people’s realities, and of the joy of helping.

Middle school girls play basketball, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California
Shubha tries to take the ball away, middle schoolers at recess, Living Wisdom School.

The other day I evesdropped on two fourth-graders, Shubha and Sam, who were organizing a “theater play” at lunchtime. They were talking to their classmates who surrounded them. I overheard Shubha say, “This is how we can include everyone….”

No teacher was present and guiding the conversation. It was just one of countless “wow!” moments I’ve had at LWS.

My first wow happened when my older son was in second grade. His brother was in kindergarten, and my wife helped them make thank-you cards for their teachers. She suggested they tell the teacher something they were thankful for.

Middle schooler Mariah lends a help hand, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California
…and Mariah lends a helping hand. Inclusiveness means being aware of other people’s realities.

Zachary thought for a moment and said, “Thank you for helping us work out our problems on the playground.” My younger son dictated the same message.

I was stunned. At a daycare camp the previous summer, my older son had gotten into fights on the playground. As punishment, the teachers made him sit on the bench at lunch. There was no instruction, no discussion, no individual guidance. It’s questionable if anything was learned.

I’m well aware how much energy it takes to “work out the kids’ problems.” It’s easy to ignore them and hope they’ll simply go away, or order the kids to “share and be nice.”

In view of what I’ve witnessed at LWS, I think, “What a lost opportunity!”

The LWS teachers are committed not only to changing behaviors but to helping children develop a more expansive outlook. And they’re able to actually do it, day in, day out, because the teacher-student ratio is low.

I’ve heard parents say, “This kind of schooling won’t make my child strong enough for the real world – it’s too ‘nice.’”

They would rather send their child to a school where they’ll become “tough enough” to deal with “real life.”

From my experience as an LWS parent, I believe it’s a tragic misconception of what it means for a child to attain true maturity.

Parents don’t realize that the ability to “play nice” demands character and inner strength. It’s much easier to retreat into selfish behavior than to exert self-control and extend one’s awareness to include the other person’s point of view.

The inclusiveness training here at LWS makes a child strong. It gives them the ability to take positive action in the face of upset and negative emotions, a skill that many adults lack. It gives them, in fact, the maturity to be successful in life.

The most successful people in the workforce are those who can keep working positively despite upsets and setbacks, and who can work well with others and motivate people to work well together. The children at LWS begin learning these lessons very actively at age five! Thus they become an integral part of who they are and how they behave.

Instead of than becoming weak or “soft,” these children acquire strengths that will give them a competitive edge over young people who only receive a traditional, academically focused education that’s conducted precariously in a “tough” environment.

Inclusiveness training is just one of the many techniques that help students develop their inner strengths at LWS. A partial list includes:

  • “Energization exercises,” accompanied by powerful affirmations, e.g., “I am positive! Energetic! Enthusiastic!”
  • “Confidence stances” before their classmates (younger grades).
  • “Rocks in the basket.”
  • Learning the school rules and discussing them in class.
  • Circle time (includes songs and chanting).
  • Ongoing group projects in the classroom.
  • Presenting projects before the class.
  • The annual all-school Theater Magic production – a professional-quality event, performed to standing-room-only audiences, where every student in the school has a role.
  • Camping trips (middle school).
  • Daily playground inclusiveness guidance.
  • Annual end-of-year Quality Speeches.

The year-end speeches deserve special mention. Every student receives an award for a “quality” they’ve worked on during the year. The student speaks to an audience of several hundred parents, siblings, and fellow students, explaining what the quality means to them personally.

The most important character-building element at LWS is the teachers who are deliberately chosen and trained to serve as worthy role models for what it means to be mature, well-adjusted, and happy.

Every one of these “tools and techniques of maturity” has a profound effect on the child, because they are applied consistently, daily, in the classroom, at recess, and during field trips and sports, in a natural way.

When I think of the incredible gifts my kids received at LWS, I confess to feeling not a little jealous. I’m sure I would have enjoyed a happier childhood, found greater fulfillment as an adult, and been better able to understand and meet life’s challenges if I had attended LWS.

I believe that enrolling your child in LWS is the wisest, most valuable gift you can give them, for their school years and beyond.