Head & Heart Ch. 6: Meaning at an Early Age

A conversation with LWS director Helen Purcell

Q: Helen, Living Wisdom School nurtures children’s sense of life’s joyous possibilities. How do you counteract the widespread belief today that life is meaningless?

Helen: In our school, we feel that the relationship between the child and the teacher needs to be based on an authentic commitment to live life in alignment with high spiritual principles.

Our teachers are “heart people.” They teach from the heart, and it’s a wonderful quality, because if the children sense that your heart is closed or judgmental, they will shut you out.

True learning begins when you encourage children to have an open heart that is can embrace ever-wider realities. You do that most effectively when they feel safe, and they feel safe when you’re supporting them, and when you’re giving them a strong, clear sense of life’s positive meaning.

Our philosophy is so central to the children’s experience that it’s impossible to talk about how we approach the “crisis of meaning” without mentioning it.

I can think of two examples that happened in just the last couple of days.

A little boy in our school had cousins visiting from India. One of the cousins spent a day in our first-grade class, and the other cousin visited my language arts class.

DSC_7383_00269_v1After school, they told their parents that they really wanted to come back to our school the next day. The boy’s mother said to me later, “We had offered to take them anywhere in the Bay Area, and we told them they could do anything they liked, but they said they really had to come back to your school.” So they spent their vacation in school with us, because they couldn’t believe the feeling of it.

They said to their mother, “The teachers are kind, and the children are friendly.” And it’s not just that the children in our school are taught good manners, or that they memorize a set of rules that they have to follow for getting along. It’s the result of something that runs much deeper in our school, and that supports the children by giving them a solid sense of meaning. It’s a culture that’s embedded in the school, based on our commitment to living life consciously.

Let me explain what I mean by living “consciously.” I’m tempted to say that “it’s all about joy.” And, yes, that’s part of it, because children have tremendous energy and a natural wakefulness and an ability to be very present in the moment. And if we can guide that enthusiasm in the right direction, they’ll experience a sense of security and happiness.

So the children’s natural energy and awareness is something we treasure and nurture in them, because it’s the foundation for helping them find a lifelong sense of meaning, including a love of learning.

But we also find that when we nurture the children’s natural ability to be present in the moment, tremendous learning can happen, so long as you’re presenting the curriculum in a way that stimulates their natural enthusiasm.

It means that, as teachers, we aren’t just imparting a fixed curriculum, plodding through the book. We’re noticing how each child is responding – where their awareness is, in each moment, and how we can guide them through the curriculum in a way that builds on their native enthusiasm.

Naturally, the teacher is at the center of the energy in the classroom, and this is particularly important for the younger children, because the teacher notices what’s going on in their lives and their hearts and minds. And then, with a little guidance, you can help them feel very, very happy and secure in the classroom, and they can go happily from one activity to the next.

Let me share another story. A little girl visited our school yesterday because she wants to enter next year. When her mother and I met, said, “If we enroll her, I’ll have to come and stay with her in the classroom because she’s very shy, and she can’t possibly come by herself.”

I said, “That’s actually not a good idea. She needs to come visit us, and we’ll give her an experience of the school.”

The mother wasn’t convinced, so I said, “You can come in for a few minutes, but then you’ll really need to leave.”

The girl was eleven, and when we met her she was literally hiding behind her mother, the way a kindergartener might behave. But five minutes later she had completely forgotten that her mother was there, because the students understood how to open their hearts, and they drew her in.

When she got in the car to go home, her mother said, “How did it go?”

She said, “Mom, I want to start tomorrow!”

It was a huge transformation. And that’s the power of a culture that celebrates the positives and makes people feel safe and included.

Q: You’re creating a special atmosphere in the classroom?

Helen: I wouldn’t call it an atmosphere exactly, because it suggests a mood that might change from one day to the next. It’s really a culture that is deeply engrained in how we think and feel and behave. It expresses in many ways, and because it’s highly attractive to the kids, they internalize it and duplicate it, so it grows.

Q: What does it require to create a culture of meaning, purpose, and hope for the children?

Helen: There’s a large amount of classroom instruction, of course, but in an intimate setting such as ours, with our very favorable teacher-student ratio, a tremendous amount of individualization becomes possible.

Q: Based on discovering each child’s unique needs?

Helen: Yes, and in our school it would be impossible not to. Our middle school teacher, Gary McSweeney, and I often laugh, because we went to Catholic schools where there were fifty children in a classroom, ten in a row, all lined up with the nun in front. And, well, it’s not that my school was all that bad, but certainly there was no individualization, because it just wasn’t possible. But it would be almost impossible in our school not to individualize the curriculum, since we’re so accessible to the children, and because we’re always relating to them one-on-one.

When I taught in public school, I had an interesting experience. At the end of the year, I praised each student’s good qualities. And do you know what they said? “That can’t possibly be true, because you haven’t said a single negative thing about anybody!”

I said, “Of course, it’s true.” (laughs) You see, it’s a question of where you’re coming from. Are you focused on ensuring that the children complete the state-mandated curriculum on time? Or are you wholly and entirely concerned about helping each individual child succeed?

Q: In her book, The Argument Culture, Barbara Tannen describes how in our culture we tend to put every issue, whether it’s politics, religion, or education, in the context of an argument. For every pro there has to be a con, and if you don’t bring out the negative and dwell on it in loving detail, people are programmed to suspect that you’re hiding something.

Helen: They think you’re looking at life through rose-colored glasses. But it’s a completely false view of reality to think that the negative defines us. Certainly there’s negativity in the world, but our happiness depends on expanding the positive aspects of our nature – and that’s a firmly engrained feature of the culture of this school.

In our circle time with the children this morning, we sang a chant, “Oh life is sweet, and death is only a dream, when Thy song flows through me.” Afterward, one of the girls said, “That isn’t true. Death isn’t a dream – death is real!”

Former math aide Eric Munro helps a student.
Former LWS middle school math aide Eric Munro helps a student with a thorny problem.

So we talked about it. We talked about how when you’re aware of spirit, you can see that the physical plane that we’re so familiar with is clearly less real. It’s a very common experience of people who’ve had near-death experiences and returned to talk about the nature of this material plane which we think is so real. It’s why the chant says that death is a dream. Because, as the saints of all paths tell us, in our soul nature we never die.

I told them about Saint Francis, how he was on his deathbed and singing joyously because he was so filled with joy. One of Francis’ fellow monks, Brother Elias, was overly concerned with the proprieties. He felt that it would be more seemly for a person to be sad and grave when they die. So he scolded Francis for singing. (laughs) And Francis said, “Oh, Brother Elias, but everything is so beautiful!” – even though he was blind at that point and couldn’t actually see.

The children understood the story, but then a little boy said, “Do you mean that when I go to my mother’s funeral, I have to be joyful?”

I said, “Absolutely not!” And we talked about the human heart, and how our feelings, too, are very real.

The point is, children will demand that kind of thoroughness and realness, and if you don’t give it to them they’ll feel poorly served, and they’ll tune you out.

So we make time to address these questions in our classrooms, and not gloss them over because we’re hell-bent on keeping up with some fixed-in-stone, government-mandated curriculum schedule.

We make it a point to pursue those conversations. It can be challenging to explain to parents and educators why it’s so terribly important, but it comes down to our basic philosophy, which says that if you support and engage the whole child in the learning process, heart, soul, and mind, it creates tremendous enthusiasm for learning. We find that being authentic in this way contributes tremendously to the children’s academic success, which is a major concern our parents have.

Q: Reading the news about high school students who’ve become alienated and shot up their schools, one wonders if their rose-colored glasses were ripped away. They weren’t taught to nurture their dreams and deal with life’s big questions in a realistic and positive way.

Helen: A classroom is as complex as the most complex relationship, multiplied by however many kids are in the class. And we’re never simply “delivering a curriculum,” because we’re always addressing a number of very individual young people. It’s why we absolutely need to very carefully develop a rapport between the teacher and the child. When you consider that there are many individual learning styles and learning disabilities and differences in temperament and intelligence, you can see that it’s a multi-layered process.

The science of teaching is about knowing how to explain the various components of knowledge. But the art of teaching is about knowing how to do it in an individual, detailed, and creatively choreographed way that evokes enthusiasm and joy. If a teacher with little experience walked into one of our classrooms, they wouldn’t understand what they were seeing.

I walked into a classroom yesterday morning and found a little girl with tears streaming down her face. She tends to cry a lot, so you don’t always want to take it too seriously. But she was upset because she’d gotten braces and they were hurting her. Also, somebody had put yogurt in her lunch, and she hates yogurt, so she was mourning that she didn’t have a good lunch. She was really crying, and I took one look at her, and I knew that the proper way to help her was to acknowledge her feelings but not get involved in a way that would encourage her to fall deeper into negativity.

So I acknowledged her feelings, and I said, “Did you know that it’s Gary’s birthday?” Because she loves birthdays. I said, “You’ve been busy making a birthday gift for him, haven’t you? And it’s not finished, right? Why don’t you work on that?”

The tears stopped immediately, and for the rest of the day she was fine. But do you know how much time and energy went into that simple interaction with the student? There were many, many times when I had to figure out why she tended to do such-and-such, and why so-and-so worked for her. And that’s how we develop a deep, intuitive awareness of what will help each child break free of negativity and find a positive sense of engagement and enthusiasm and meaning.

It’s very, very complex. With that little girl, I happened to hit the nail on the head. But some days you won’t find the “nail” right away, because you haven’t known the student very long, and you don’t know how to work with them.

Q: You’re dealing with the children as whole people, and not just brains to be filled with facts?

Helen: Oh, yes. They are just as much people as we are, but they aren’t able to hide their feelings as well as we can. So their feelings tend to be laid out there for you to look at, and then you can figure out how to help them.

Q: Does relating to the children on an individual basis help them avoid becoming disenchanted?

Helen: Imagine a school that teaches children how to be kind, and to understand that their enjoyment depends on others’ enjoyment, and where no child, to a person, would ever be able to say, “Somebody picked on me and nobody helped.”

That’s our culture. It isn’t as if the children in our school are saints. They’re normal kids, and they can get into it with each other. But because our culture is so well-defined, and we’re all very clear about our values, these things are addressed immediately, as soon as they occur. If a child says something sarcastic to another child, we don’t dismiss it as insignificant and something to be brushed aside. “Get over it, Johnny!” We consider it an opportunity for both children to learn: the one child to learn to be more kind, the other perhaps to learn to assert himself.

Q: Are these the things that nurture a child from inside, so that he or she doesn’t feel isolated or lonely?

Helen: Yes. There’s a sense of family that extends from the kernel of the classroom outward to the whole school. It doesn’t stop at the classroom door – it plays out on the playground, and between the children and the teachers outside the classroom.

Our children feel comfortable with us. They approach us, not as peers, because there’s a definite level of respect, but they are not uneasy around us. They aren’t put off by our authority or our roles, because they have a good sense of themselves, and they know that we have their best interests at heart.

When the children feel good about themselves, and they feel that their teachers are accessible, you have a situation where almost anything can be worked out. But if there’s a group of kids who feel closed off, alienated, and marginalized, that’s where you get the problems with depression, rejection, and meaningless.

Q: Let me bore you with a research study, and then I’ll ask my next question. ABCNEWS.com on April 1, 2001 reported a nationwide survey of more than 15,000 teenagers conducted by the California-based Institute of Ethics. Of those teenagers, 21 percent of the high-school boys and 15 percent of the middle-school boys had taken a weapon to school at least once in the past year. Sixty percent of the high school boys and 31 percent of the middle-school boys said they could get a gun if they wanted to. And 16 percent of the high school students admitted to having been drunk at school.

It’s amazing how many kids have violence in their backgrounds, and it seems that the kids who end up shooting up their schools are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a huge consciousness of violence in the schools.

Helen: There’s also a culture of exclusion, and it’s really at the heart of the problem. In middle and high schools, belonging to an in-group is assumed to be important, and no one is combating this completely false consciousness. But it’s tremendously harmful to children, to have all this fear and anxiety around superficial things like status, and whether you’re a jock or a geek or a rich kid or a gangbanger. Only in a culture where there’s a generosity of heart can children blossom. And you’re extremely unlikely to find it in any kind of structure that is hierarchical and compartmentalized.

To a surprising extent, you even find it among the teachers and administrators. I’ve heard the high school faculty lounge described as “the snake pit.”

Someone told me that they’re creating state and federal grants and funds to combat bullies in school. He said the governor of Colorado, acting through the state department of education, has outlawed the game of tag.

Q: Hurrah for hyper-rationalism.

Girl and boy during recess at Living Wisdom School in Palo Alto, CA

Helen: Really, the solutions will never come by legislating them or thinking about them in lofty isolation. Because they’re a matter of the heart. In our school, we assume that every child is perfect in his or her soul, and that the children need our help to manifest that perfection in the way their individual soul wants to. And that kind of progress isn’t something you can measure with numbers. But if you can do it, the rewards are great. When you nurture children individually, you create human racehorses who are confident and competent and happy in their academics, relationships, and life.

We look for the beauty of the individual child, even the most difficult. We’re with them constantly, so we’re able to see the glimmers of light behind the mask. You know it’s there, and it’s a question of bringing it out.

Q: It seems you have a unified understanding of what children should get out of school. If there’s a keynote of the school, what would you say it is?

Helen: Again, my first impulse is to say “joy.” But joy comes when you decide to take some very practical steps, and you work hard at them. For example, one of our school rules says that joy happens when we “choose happiness and practice kindness.”  

Now, this is a very practical rule, because it’s easy to verify in our lives. We all know how it feels to choose to be happy and treat others with kindness. It’s a simple, practical principle that wise people of all ages have taught. But they never said it would be easy!

We’re very real in the way we guide the students. Maybe things aren’t going well in your life all the time. So you have to choose to come at your life from a point of inner joy. That’s the essence of our teaching.

Again, it’s working with the human reality and the inner reality, because they are not separate. “We are our aspirations.” But we need to build our dreams on a realistic foundation. A child can feel overwhelmed by a mood, but they’ll be lifted by the other students who are managing to stay centered in attitudes of kindness, compassion, and happiness that are the core of the school culture.

We’ve recently had a cascade of kids who’ve gotten braces, complete with side effects, from cut gums, to headaches, to being unable to think, and not wanting to be at school.

They don’t feel well, but they want to be good. And do you know what the class does? They pray for everybody who has braces. We do healing prayers for them in the morning, and honestly, you can see the impact it has on the kids. Even if it doesn’t take the pain away, they have an incredibly powerful sense of friendship and support from their classmates, and it transforms their day.

A little boy said to me the other day, “Helen, can we say a prayer for my sister? She’s coming in on the plane.” So we stopped in the middle of the lesson and said a prayer, because it was an okay thing to do.

It’s one small thing, but when you multiply it by the countless other small positive things that happen, it adds up. A child can’t figure out how to double-space on the computer, and someone will walk over and say, “I know how.” They don’t have to ask the teacher, because they know it’s acceptable to help each other.

Q: You encourage them to help each other with schoolwork?

Helen: It’s accepted, and we give them the freedom to act on it. When everybody’s operating from that point ofview – “I want to choose happiness, I want to be kind.” – nobody has to take control in a rigid way that stifles their individuality.