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Times Past: Jittery student floats through meditative traditions of New England learning

  • “Lately, I wonder how Miss Murphy routinely accomplished that feat of peacefulness with the 30 children in her class at Vernon Street School,” Marilyn McArthur writes in today’s memoir. METRO CREATIVE COMMONS

  • McARTHUR



Friday, August 11, 2017

“Now class, we will sit silently until the bell rings.”

We were suspended on the brink of the weekend, each alone at an immovable desk, and enveloped in a deeply calm and relaxed atmosphere of our mutual creation.

This was how Friday afternoons ended at my new school in second grade. Lately, I wonder how Miss Murphy routinely accomplished that feat of peacefulness with the 30 children in her class at Vernon Street School.

We had cleaned out our desks and filled the wastebasket in the corner with all the scrap paper of the week. Books and notebooks were arranged neatly in our desks and on shelves around the room.

Meanwhile, Miss Murphy had washed the blackboards with a big sponge, and someone had stepped outside to clap the erasers free of chalk dust. Inside my desk, my pencil case was clean of shavings, and my eight crayons were lined up in rainbow formation in their little tin box.

Now, our job was to settle down, cease wriggling and whispering, while Miss Murphy strolled the perimeter; absorbed in the task of watering geraniums on the windowsills.

With all tasks completed, and Miss Murphy back at her desk in front of the room, a stillness descended among us, until the slow ticking of the clock on the wall was the only sound in the room. We knew what came next: the bell would ring dismissal and the spell would be broken. For the time being, however, there we sat in a small eternity.

When summer came and I went to day camp, I met girls from other schools around the Pioneer Valley. Comparing our school experiences, it turned out they, too, had to sit quietly before dismissal on Fridays. Oh, it was the worst, absolutely the worst part of school; they squealed, shivering at the memory.

Surprised to discover a secret difference between my new friends and me, I am sure I did not pipe up to defend Miss Murphy. Normally, I whispered and passed notes like anybody else; more than anybody else, actually. I was talkative. I was a jittery student also, who sometimes jiggled my leg involuntarily, or tapped my pencil until asked to stop. But, I knew I rather liked the Friday afternoon silence.

I enjoyed the silent time at school the way I did some of my favorite things at camp; like staring into the fire, or listening to the drumming rain on the tarp above my head. I liked the change of pace, which slowed until eventually there was nothing at all to do. I liked the safe solitude of my desk, where no one intruded on my space or interrupted my thoughts.

“Thoughts” isn’t the right word, exactly. Not having to attend to anything outside myself, what came to the fore were not so much thoughts as sensations. A breeze through the open window grazed my cheek; outside, the breeze caused the flag and its rigging to flap and clank against the flagpole. My oak desk was smooth and shiny, and my fingers sought out the darkened nicks left in the wood by other children before me.

The tranquil mood heightened my senses and I found it thoroughly absorbing just to sit there and enjoy the full panoply of experience they delivered to me.

How in the world such a meditative tradition of mindfulness came to be established in New England public schools in the mid-20th century, I’m not sure.

Long ago, there were Puritan children here, compelled to sit through long Sabbaths in stillness. Our teachers were Irish Catholic women (Miss Murphy, Miss Maginnis, Miss Finn, Miss McGinty ...) who may have gone to parochial school and learned quiet meditative habits there.

Unfortunately, unskillful instruction in paying attention (Pay attention!) can veer toward the punitive, and too many children everywhere suffer the experience. Forceful suppression of individuality can cut a person off from discovery and experience of their own unique being, making it difficult to ever be quiet on the inside. Constant distraction has the same effect.

Lucky for us, there is always the example of local Massachusetts hero and freelance transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who would “rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” “Wherever I sat,” Thoreau wrote in ‘Walden,’ “there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly.”

Sometimes, Thoreau could discern the chime of a distant church bell from his cabin on Walden Pond. At 3 p.m. on Fridays, we heard the shrill dismissal bell and were challenged to maintain composure just a little bit longer, until the moment we burst outside. Monday morning, teacher called the role, to which we replied, “present,” and a new week began. And so, we learned to try to be — present.

Marilyn McArthur lives in Conway. She blogs for the website: Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis at: www.overcomingms.org