‘Quiet Time’ healing Holy Trinity - Transcendental Meditation helping to turn around troubled school
It was once identified among the four worst-performing secondary schools in Jamaica, and several of the students are from some of the toughest inner-city communities in Kingston, but Holy Trinity High School is slowly discarding the bad name it had for decades and signs of the upswing are clearly evident.
One initiative being praised for the turnaround is an eccentric meditation initiative introduced by principal, Margaret Brissett-Bolt.
"We tried everything. I am coming out of the education ministry so I know nearly all the programmes. We brought in all kinds of speakers to talk to them, the police, soldiers, the parents ... it was just not working.
"We put in all kinds of rules and regulations, and nothing," Brissett-Bolt told our news team during a visit to the school last Wednesday.
Determined to turn the school around, and armed with the knowledge that this change would only come from inside her students, Brissett-Bolt turned to an unusual method.
She tapped the overseas-based David Lynch Foundation for assistance with training the teachers and students in Transcendental Meditation (TM), which is practised using personalised mantras which allow persons to access a deep meditative state.
According to Brissett-Bolt, initially, the idea was scoffed at, but now the twice-daily, half-an-hour meditation sessions are well accepted.
"Some students just took on to it. Some roughneck (rude) boys ... because we have some very angry young men, you saw them just relaxing. You just saw the change in them. They just take time and come right down," said Brissett-Bolt.
"So we knew that something good was coming out of this," added Brissett-Bolt, as she argued that TM is calming for the young minds and brings peace to their teachers, who contend with the tough issues emanating from the classroom, communities and the students' homes.
Brissett-Bolt said the now popular 'quiet time', as it is dubbed at Holy Trinity, involves students stopping wherever they are at 7:45 a.m. just before school starts, and at 12:15 p.m. after lunch, to meditate. The meditation is usually complemented by soothing religious music.
Now it is almost second nature as students either find their classroom or the nearest tree and reflect on their concerns and possible solutions for the day.
Most teachers and students practise TM, and those who opt not to observe silence in quiet time in respect of their peers.
"It is just a technique that helps you to reduce stress, to relax. If we can feel so, imagine how the children feel. Sometimes they are stressed out. Sometimes they just need a little time out," said Brissett-Bolt, who has been leading Holy Trinity for the past four years.
She said the grade seven students are the ones most impacted by the sessions, and this is reflected in the improvement in the reading levels of her two lowest-performing seventh grades.
These classes were segregated by gender in an effort to get students to concentrate better, and the veteran educator is buoyed by their achievements so far.
Of the 32 students in the all-boys class, only nine were reading at the grade one level, while 23 were reading at the level of grade two when they entered the school in September last year.
Fast-forward to March 2017 and only one student in that class was reading at the grade one level, seven at grade two, 18 at grade three, and six students at the grade four level.
In the all-girls class last September, one student was reading at the pre-primary level, 10 students were reading at grade one level and 24 at grade two.
Last month, the student at the pre-primary level on entry and two others were reading at grade one level, nine students were reading at grade two, 20 at grade three, three at grade four and one at the grade five level.
'Calms my nerves'
Last Wednesday, about a dozen students gathered, eyes closed, inside Brissett-Bolt's office for a TM session during the visit of our news team.
It was not long before the room took on a reverent hush as teachers hummed the tune of We Are Standing On Holy Ground, which was playing in the background.
For 15 minutes no student flinched, and it took at least five minutes of
gentle prodding from the teachers to awaken the students out of their quiet calm.
"This meditation helps me to calm down my nerves. It helps me to breath better so I can settle," explained Jaquan McBean, a grade eight student.
"It make me behave myself better. I used to give a lot of trouble. I used to walk out of class and curse off the teachers. Those are things that I have stopped now and I have been doing my work," added Oneil Treasure, who teachers first identified among the more problematic grade nine students.
"It helps me to calm down my ignorance, like when me and people have things or when them a trouble me about my mother. If me meditate, certain things I won't do," offered an outspoken Breanna Taylor, a grade nine student from community, which she said is often plagued by nightly gunfire between warring thugs.
For Breanna, and others like her, TM has given them the space where they can dream about a bright future.