I would really love to share the story of Rivers Academy with the world. Rivers Academy is not a Buddhist school, a mindfulness school, a parochial, or a non-parochial school.
Rivers Academy is just a school, a place where people maintain as much mindfulness as they can. It is a place where the twenty-five to forty students ages six to seventeen, and eight to ten teachers all know what the word mindfulness means to them. The word is in our vocabulary. We even know it in sign language. It is a wonderful word. Teacher: “How do we enter or leave a building?”
Students: “Mindfully!” Teacher: “How do we cross the street:” Students: “Mindfully!” Teacher: “How do we treat each other?” Students: “Mindfully!” Teacher: “What are the two things you should do when you hear the mindfulness bell?” Students: “Stop and breathe.”
“Mindfulness and Rivers Academy are truly one and the same”, says office manager, Shawnne O’Brien. “The center of Rivers Academy is our hearts. Within our hearts is the center of our mindfulness. Every breath, smile, school lesson, phone call and conversation is one of awareness, not just with ourselves, but with those around us. In the silence of the school day, the energy of love and unity, through each breath, is absolutely miraculous.”
Mindfulness is applied in practical ways when we take walks to the nearby parks and recreation centers. We walk with space between us, each student practicing silence, and awareness of breath and space. We keep a mindfulness bell in our classroom. When anyone invites the bell, everyone stops for a moment and takes a breath. We have learned sign language for “mindfulness bell”. One day a teacher reported seeing a student catch another’s eye across the room to remind him with sign language to be mindful. Our yoga class offered tea ceremony to the other students, parents, and staff on the last day of school last year.
We are fortunate to be a school that is not limited by law in our expression of faith, religion, and prayer. Last year two Thai Forest monks visited our school. We walked silently behind them, many of us barefoot, through our inner city neighborhood. They spoke to us, answered many questions, and spent the afternoon with us. As schools all over town were dismissed early due to one of the worst sandstorms in recent history, these gentle monks comforted us all in their gentle loving presence. In our part of the world there is a strong culture of Catholicism.
Many of our students are Catholic, and prayers to Jesus and the Blessed Mother frequent our hearts and altars. The family and friends of one Baha’i student offer presentations and gifts according to their faith. These are only some of the faiths openly expressed at our school.
When I asked our students how they believe mindfulness helps them to be happy, two of them responded that there is no fighting, no bullies, no name-calling, no meanness. If discipline is needed, we stop and breathe, sit and talk. One student said learning is easier. Mindfulness helps us remember to be quiet. One teacher has her students stop and breathe before activities and tests. She states that when students are mindful, it is easier to get their attention. Lessons are easier to focus on, not rush through. One student sums it up. She says, “We have to be mindful while we work. That means being aware of our surroundings.” With all this talk about quiet and silence, let there be no misunderstanding. Joy and laughter fill our days, for there is space for that joy to manifest. The expression of our joy is complete and visible in many ways. Mindfulness in a school atmosphere allows the human elements of joy and happiness to emerge in beautiful ways through creative projects. Certainly conflict arises continually, for happiness is not the opposite of conflict. Our happiness reflects our commitment to peaceful conflict resolution.
When asked to give examples of conflict resolution, at first I was stumped. We sit, we breathe, we talk, hug. That is all. Or is it? As I pondered this question, I came across an article in the Sun Magazine (February, 2003) by Marshall Rosenberg. Dr. Rosenberg teaches people how to act in non-aggressive ways. His method is known as Nonviolent Communication (NVC). There I saw a description of what we do. NVC has four steps:
observing what is happening in a given situation; identifying what one is feeling; identifying what one is needing; and then making a request for what one would like to see occur. Seemingly simple, the key, as I see it, is mindfulness. Only through the practice of mindfulness can an individual have enough presence of mind to observe and identify feelings and needs, much less to make a request based on those feelings and needs. In NVC, there is no blame, no retribution, no punishment. When we tell families our school is safe, we are not just referring to the protection from outside influences and criminals. Children are safe because violence is not tolerated, in speech or action. Once you experience this kind of safety, the heart opens. This is where our work begins. It is the heart connection, the connection to another’s life, that opens the door to communication. Communication is the door to education, as well as to healing. The educational program at Rivers Academy is called the DeLta System© of Dynamic Literacy. Dr. Stephen Farmer of New Mexico State University, and mentor to Rivers Academy’s founding director, Nema Rivers LeCuyer, created and developed the DeLta System© in response to his work in the field of communications and speech/language pathology. Recognizing that all true education depends on making sense of one’s world and the ability to communicate with others, Dr. Farmer also recognized the innate compassion in such true education. Therefore, the system of Dynamic Literacy embraces all learners, inclusive of their individual learning styles, type of intelligence, and learning preferences. It does so through the use of curiosity conversations and grasp levels, which replace grades. It is a non-fearful type of education, as it precludes failure and teacher versus student scenarios. Marshall Rosenberg uses the term “domination culture” to describe power structures in which the few dominate the many. Schools, religions, workplaces, and governments are examples of structures where authorities sometimes impose their will on other people. Punishment and reward are the strategies for the authorities to get what they want. Why was I stumped when asked to describe conflict resolution? Embraced by the loving atmosphere in which I am blessed to work, I could almost forget that the ways of the DeLta System© and of Nonviolent Communication are not just common sense. It will take time for schools such as Rivers Academy, and others that use nonviolence as their basis, to change the world. But one child at a time, one family at a time, living one moment at a time in mindfulness, as Thay so beautifully teaches us, makes a future possible.
Rivers Academy is a non-profit school, serving the wealthy and poor alike. We depend on grants and donations and often experience financial struggle. Due to the faith and devotion of staff and board members, we celebrate our seventh year in 2003, and our mindfulness practice serves us well, as we focus on the present moment.
Do we ever forget to be mindful? Yes, all day long. Do we remember to be mindful? Yes, all day long. Will we forget tomorrow to be mindful? Yes. Will we remember tomorrow to be mindful? Yes.
How long will we continue to practice this mindfulness? As long as the moment lasts. As long as it takes. As long as the breath goes in and goes out. As long as it takes to smile. As long as it take a tear to wet your cheek. As long as it takes to help a friend. As long as it takes.
Judy K. Harmon, Deep Vision of the Heart, is a teacher who practices at Daibutsuji Temple in Las Cruces, New Mexico.