Restoration and Reflection: A Note from Lauren Alpert
Just breathe. One of the more overused expressions, and the title of a country song I’d rather forget.
Throughout much of my educational experience, I fulfilled the definition of a nerd (before that was a “cool” thing to be). Member of a technology academy, presentation teams, madrigal choirs, the works. While singing was one of my more favorite past-times, it also betrayed one of my biggest fears. Choirs were ideal because I could be one voice among many, but the private voice lessons I attended outside of school involved me, my amazingly talented and caring teacher, and a piano. While the cozy, burgundy-colored bungalow room in the back of my teacher’s house provided the most safe of environments, our bi-annual recitals turned an otherwise enjoyable hobby into the most nerve-wracking, light-headed-from-fear type of experience. I’d get up there, unhealthily pale, and promptly blackout for the entirety of my performance.
Performance is a inherent aspect of music, so my teacher set out to strengthen my skills on the stage. One of the most lasting of lessons was a series of yoga breathing techniques she’d walk me through prior to every performance. These breathing practices have endured long after my days of singing ended. I find myself regularly taking deep, rhythmic breaths while I run, in stressful meetings, on particularly crowded buses, everywhere. It’s even turned into an ongoing practice of yoga as one of my main forms of exercise. At an early age I learned the value of finding calming practices, and that has helped from that day on.
As an after school Team Leader with AmeriCorps, I had these 6th grade girls that challenged the boundaries of typical pre-teen attitude. They were the ones that pushed every button they could find, showed little to no respect of anyone, and loved to remind me just how little they cared about what I (or anyone else) thought. While there were days that I doubted I could do anything to impact their choices and behaviors, there was one day where these two had decided to argue intensely with each other. After a frantic call from their classroom leaders, I pulled them out of their class, brought them to some chairs in the hall, and told them that right then there was to be no more words, only breathing. I took them through the very same exercise my voice teacher had taken me through over a decade before. They rolled their eyes, slouched their shoulders, and took as small of breaths as they could without suffocating themselves. After not talking for about 5 minutes (the horror!) they calmed down, agreed they could peacefully return to class (anything to get away from me) and that was it.
Several weeks, maybe months, later it was time for 6th grade basketball tryouts. To them, this was everything; their ticket to the good life in junior high next year, filled with admirers and hallway fame. As I carried about a typical afternoon, one of them chased me down in the courtyard and said, “Ms. Alpert, I’m really nervous about basketball. I really really want to be awesome, but I’m so scared I’m going to mess up. Can you… can you do that breathing thing with me?” She looked pained to deign to ask me for help, ugh, gross. I, on the other hand, was overcome with cliched emotion and had to work hard to keep it together, but I calmly agreed and we took 30 seconds to breathe. I will absolutely, without a doubt barring serious injury and memory loss, never forget this moment.
While my anecdotes are only representative of my experience, I share them as examples of mentorship and its far-reaching outcomes, whether those responsible for such lessons ever know. As recently described in an article in the SF Gate and during a segment on KQED, SF Unified School District and other Bay Area districts have begun adopting forms of meditation and breathing into their school day schedules to encourage restoration and reflection in our students.
Whether you have heard from your students or are generally removed from the challenges they may face outside of your tutoring time, part of the work our volunteers do in Experience Corps is teaching students how to deal with stress, with pressure, with life. Whether it’s breathing techniques, counting to 5 in our heads, or any other number of restorative practices, these skills are inextricably a part of the work at hand.