Brian Cooper is the Assistant Principal at Life Academy for Health and Bioscience in Oakland Unified School District. The school serves a large immigrant population with more than 95% receiving free or reduced lunch.
Sitting on a cushion in my living room, I practice. Some mornings my mind roams free-range, grazing on chance memories and future possibilities. I can’t corral this grazing, aimless mind. Other mornings, my mind feels effortlessly focused. Grounded by gravity, I sense my body vibrantly awaken with a gentle awareness of breath. Regardless of which type of mindfulness experience may arise this morning, I welcome and accept it.
My morning practice is a life buoy—thirty minutes to unify my mind and body for the day’s good battles and to prepare an accessible sanctuary. Soon my two school-age sons will awaken and I want to be ready to greet them kindly before shifting gears to be an assistant principal in East Oakland. Later I’ll return home to my beautiful life-partner who will be waiting for me with expectations and loving companionship. I need to be present and available for all of these experiences.
At school I practice with four classes weekly, two sixth grade and two tenth grade. Some students slip easily into moments of mindfulness and express gratitude for the opportunity. Others make weird noises and giggle. Kids have named that they use the practice to resolve sibling conflict, to keep focus on the soccer field, to help fall asleep. One girl says her mom downloaded a mindfulness audio recording and they listen to it together.
Recently I stood in a room of tenth graders to talk about the practice of mindfulness. “Yes,” I say. “I want you all to graduate from Life Academy prepared for college. I want you to live with dignity and be able to provide for yourself and your loved ones. Maybe these mindful minutes will help with that and also make it easier to show up for math during the last period of the day. I’m here because, based on my personal experience, practicing mindfulness helps with being alive this moment. It helps balance our stress and emotion, helps manage the high expectations placed on us, helps us meet the needs of friends and family.”
The work of social justice in Oakland public schools is challenging. Too many of these children have experienced the social inequities of poverty and the trauma of violence. Their faces and stories keep me working with humility, love and purpose. One beautiful girl didn’t say goodbye to her father before he was removed by customs enforcement, but wrote an exceptional 16-page research paper. A quiet boy was so embarrassed about a bad haircut that I bought him a Raider’s hat. His parents work multiple minimum wage jobs and he doesn’t see them much. Another boy makes me laugh every time we talk, but I know there’s another side to him still grieving for a brother lost to gun violence.
Due in part to my mindfulness practice, I’m able to engage in the work wholly and with equanimity. The movement of mindfulness in education invigorates me, strengthening my belief that within us all, individually and collectively, is the potential to live peaceful, fulfilling and meaningful lives.