Why Dynamic Mindfulness? An Answer from the Heart

by Coleen Armstrong-Yamamura

I was recently asked the question, "Why are you so passionate about schools adopting dynamic mindfulness?" Although there are many logical and scientifically supported answers to that question, the answer that came from my heart was, "For Lawrence."

When I started teaching in 2008 as a member of Teach For America's New Orleans Corps, I did not know about dynamic mindfulness. In my 2008 mind, the primary way to give my students a chance at achieving their dreams was to bring them up to grade level in English and Math.

I learned a lot about Lawrence before I ever met him. Veteran teachers seem to have a natural inclination to attempt to terrorize first year teachers with tales of the demonic qualities of their future students. He stabbed a police officer in the leg with a pencil. He was 15 in the 7th grade. He was a lost cause.

I remember the first conversation I had with Lawrence. It was the second week of school. He hadn't shown up for the first week. He sat slumped in his seat, forehead on the desk, arms dangling lifelessly by his sides like a corpse someone had failed to prop up correctly. I managed somehow to get him into the hallway for what I intended to be an inspirational pep talk. Lawrence was nearly as unresponsive to my questions and prodding in the hallway as he had been in class, until I uttered the words, "I believe in you." Suddenly he lifted his head and he locked me in his gaze for the first time. "HA! You don't know me Chinese lady. You need to just leave me alone." He abruptly turned his back on me and returned to his corpse position in his desk.  I obviously did not leave Lawrence alone and like all heartwarming student growth stories, Lawrence finally started to trust me, and he began to believe in himself.

I got to move up with my students from 7th to 8th grade. I loved all my kids, but Lawrence was special. Seeing him walk across the stage at 8th grade graduation was one of my most triumphant teaching moments. The "lost cause" of our school, strutting across the stage with his ear to ear smile, Lawrence embodied the enormous power that education and educators can have in changing the course of an individual's life.

Every six months I would get a call from Lawrence, just saying "Hi" and updating me on his world. The last time I talked to Lawrence was a few months before Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans. He was in high spirits, saying he was taking an extra large class load so he could graduate early. He had a girlfriend. He was going to be applying to colleges soon. After I hung up, I thought to myself, "He is going to make it." I smiled all day.

I woke up to my phone ringing one Saturday morning. My friend Adam was on the other end telling me that Lawrence had died. He didn't know any details so I frantically opened my computer and searched for his name, hoping that Adam had been mistaken. The article was only three paragraphs. Lawrence had an "altercation" in a convenience store, tried unsuccessfully to steal a car, and then laid down in front of oncoming traffic where his body was run over by three cars. I sat in my bed reading the paragraphs over and over in shock.

And then I saw his face. The tortured Lawrence that would talk about killing himself the first year I taught him. The one that felt like his life was completely out of his control. The Lawrence that didn't think he had a future. The Lawrence I thought we had vanquished, years ago. I saw that tortured version of Lawrence lie down in front of traffic and allow his life to end. The pain and chaos he must have felt to end his life in such a gruesome way tore at my heart.

I taught Lawrence techniques to improve his reading and writing. I worked with him to improve his understanding of linear equations. What I didn't teach Lawrence were skills for stress resilience and emotional regulation. I never gave him evidence-based techniques for healing from the emotional trauma that life regularly threw at him.  I naively believed that academic skills would be enough to propel him into the life he dreamed of attaining. It was not enough. 

Our students grow up in a world fraught with chronic stress and vicious realities. As educators, we must not only prepare our students for the academic obstacles they will encounter, but also train them with the life skills that will allow them to overcome the many challenges and stressors that they will inevitably confront in their lifetime. From being a college freshman, to dealing with a hurricane that wipes out your home, we owe it to our students to give them tools that they can use to find stability and strength in any situation. That is why it is with Lawrence in my heart that I passionately endeavor to bring dynamic mindfulness practices to our schools, students, teachers, and families.