The night before her first online class in April, Bridget Riley had a dream.
This wasn’t a start-of-the-school-year anxiety dream she’d had many times before in her 14 years as a high school teacher.
This was her first restart-of-the-school-year-in-a-pandemic anxiety dream.
She wasn’t wandering the halls, late for class, unable to find her room at East High.
She was wandering the city, going from one closed coffee shop to another, unable to find her students.
“I was frantic. I couldn’t find you,” Riley told her English students the next day, Wednesday, April 1.
As she spoke, she and about a dozen of her students were sitting in their own homes looking at each other on their laptops or smartphones.
“I’m feeling good now,” she assured students from her living room. “I’m not feeling anxious, now that you’re all here.”
Here, as in online on Zoom in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
In March, tens of thousands of students and teachers left their Shelby County schools on Friday the 13th for spring break.
Concerns about COVID-19 kept them from going back. Teachers and students were forced to finish the school year at home online.
Riley and her students faced an extra challenge.
In January, they began participating in a pilot curriculum designed to address youth trauma and violence.
The program was developed by a team of local artists, musicians, dancers, writers, photographers and filmmakers who call themselves opens in a new windowGrounded.
They are working with opens in a new windowFacing History and Ourselves, the opens in a new windowACE Awareness Foundation and other organizations devoted to helping youth.
Grounded’s “ opens in a new windowMe and the Light” curriculum encourages teenagers to use mindfulness and artistic expression to manage and make sense of the tumult around them.
“When COVID hit and the schools were closed, I thought everything would get postponed until next year,” Riley said. “I was worried.”
Worried she would lose touch with her students, and they would lose touch with each other, in a particularly traumatic time in their young lives.
Worried they would lose the opportunity to learn new and creative ways to handle trauma and violence at a time when they needed it most.
Over the course of eight weeks in April and May, Riley and her students found what they needed.
In a time of increasing isolation and anxiety, they connected and showed the academic, social and emotional potential of an interactive online class.
In a time of rising political and racial polarization, they collaborated with a wide variety of gifted adults in various places.
“I so appreciate that I am in this moment in time with you,” Riley told her students on April 1 as her face and voice filled with emotion.
“Of course, you knew I would cry because I’ve missed you all so much. I may have to run and get a tissue.”
The Grounded project at East High officially launched Jan. 27.
Nearly 500 students, faculty and staff rode buses to Malco Paradiso to attend a special screening of “Me and the Light.”
The visually compelling short film is a powerful statement about how art can heal and transform self and community.
“Be what a bullet can’t. Be life … conscious … love … strength … forgiveness.”
The film features Memphis dancer opens in a new windowCharles “Lil Buck” Riley and original music by Memphis musicians opens in a new windowValerie June, opens in a new windowDrumma Boy, opens in a new windowPaul Taylor and opens in a new windowKevo Muney.
“We have this desire to exist, to reach higher. Memphis gave us that fire.”
After the film, the producers, performers and other opens in a new windowGrounded team members spent the rest of the day back at East High.
“If I stay as I am, how will I become what I want to be?”
They talked to students about the healing powers of the arts.
“We have a choice, to slide in any direction. A choice to push beyond expression. A choice to become non-silence. A chance to be non-violence. Be what a bullet can’t be. Be.”
That day’s film and followup discussions were just the beginning.
The Grounded team planned to conduct other classroom discussions, field trips and arts projects with Riley’s students throughout the semester.
“The energy was high coming off of our January launch,” said opens in a new windowAlan Spearman, the film’s director and a Grounded co-founder.
“We were looking forward to keeping that momentum going in the spring semester. Then COVID-19 turned the world upside down.”
They talked to Riley and East High’s principal, Dr. Newman Robertson.
They delivered mobile hot spots and internet gift cards to students who lacked internet access.
They revised the curriculum to find creative ways to engage students three times a week for eight weeks online.
On Mondays, students received Journal Prompts asking them to reflect on thought-provoking videos, photos, readings or quotes.
For the April 6 class, they could watch a meditation video by Sister Peace, a Buddhist nun from opens in a new windowMagnolia Grove Monastery in North Mississippi.
They could read an article about the civil rights history of Clayborn Temple. “Can you think of other times when people have used their voice, their bodies, and creative expression (like the creation of the I AM A Man sign) to challenge injustices?”
Or they could read an article about mental health during the pandemic “and complete the form on your mental health at the end of the article.”
On Wednesdays, students gathered on Zoom for live lessons and discussions with Riley and Grounded team members.
On April 8’s Zoom call, Sister Peace led a slow-walk meditation. She walked slowly, quietly, deliberately around her room, focusing her attention on each breath and step.
Students were invited to do the same wherever they were.
“We all have feelings of uncertainty right now with this virus,” Sister Peace said, her voice as slow and gentle as her gait. “We can use these practices to calm ourselves in heightened states of excitement.”
Afterward, students were invited to discuss the experience.
“For me personally,” junior Zachary Campbell said, “I think the walking helped to release some of the tension and stress from the quarantine. It was a sense of relief, just to clear your mind.”
Students connected on Zoom from wherever they were.
Some walked down a street or sat in a car. Others sat in their bedrooms or back yards. Many were in Memphis, but some were with family in other cities or states.
Dogs barked. Babies cried. Kids interrupted. The classes went on.
“Please excuse the yoga music in the background. My girlfriend is doing yoga,” Lil Buck told the students one day.
Lil Buck, the world-famous Memphis jooker, and other Grounded guest instructors participated wherever they were, too.
Valerie June, the soul-folk singer who got her start in Memphis, sat on a porch or stood in the yard of her family’s farm near Humboldt, Tennessee.
She talked to the students about how she handles her diabetes and self-doubt.
“I used to cry every day – a deep, dark, end-of-the-world cry,” she said. “I learned how to hit the pause button, to stop in the middle of a traumatic situation, and breathe, and realize I had a choice. I could choose to react to that in a negative way or in a positive way. It’s a choice I have to make every day.”
Christopher “Drumma Boy” Gholson, a hip-hop producer who grew up in Memphis, sat inside his music studio in Atlanta.
He talked to the students about “Live On,” the song he wrote and produced as a tribute to his brother, Ferrell Miles, who was shot and killed in Atlanta in 2018.
Drumma was on the phone with his brother and heard the gunshots that killed him.
“First thing in my head, I’m from Memphis, I’m thinking revenge,” he told the students.
“I had to channel that anger and grief into my music. My music is the only thing that allows me to stay sane. I put my soul, my spirit, my heart into it. I fight with my music through my keyboard and beat machines. Music saves my life.”
Marico Flake, a Memphis police officer and Grounded team member, participated in one class from inside his patrol car, and another from inside a precinct.
Flake, who dances as “Dr. Rico” in “Me and the Light,” talked to students about the healing power of gratitude.
“Sometimes I have a very difficult call,” Flake told them. “I sit for a moment in the squad care and I do a touch and appreciation.”
He touched his chest. “I say that I appreciate that I still have my heart intact to feel what’s going on around me.”
Then he touched his head. “I appreciate having my mind and having a clear head and being aware.”
Then he touched his arms and legs. “Just to remind myself of the gift of feeling alive, to be grateful to be alive.”
Students were not required to participate in the Grounded sessions, so attendance and participation varied.
About three dozen students took part at some point, but only a handful attended all eight Zoom classes and completed all prompts and challenges.
“There was a lot of silence from students on some of the early calls,” Riley said. “I’m sure some of them felt a bit overwhelmed.
“We probably need a lower ratio of guests to give more space and time to the kids.”
Conducting a virtual class was an adjustment for Riley as well.
“I missed their body language,” she said. “There are things you know and learn about students just by being physically proximate. But we got better at it as we went.”
Students explored new topics each week.
They talked about COVID-19 and social distancing and being isolated from teachers and friends and their support networks.
They talked about famed Memphis journalist Ida B. Wells, who was awarded posthumously with a Pulitzer Prize on May 4 for her “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
They talked about the Feb. 23 slaying of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and about racism and mass incarceration, gun violence and police brutality.
They talked about using art to explore, explain and transform their own experiences.
Amanda Lucidon, a Grounded co-founder, showed photographs from her book, “ opens in a new windowChasing Light: Michelle Obama Through the Lens of a White House Photographer.”
She invited students to discuss aspects of each photo they found most interesting.
“We all have unique perspectives,” she said. “We all see things differently and that’s how we can learn from each other and build understanding and compassion for others.”
opens in a new windowTerry Lynn and opens in a new windowPhillip Adams, two Memphis visual artists, told students to consider art another form of language.
”We can use this art to channel our thoughts, explore our feelings, and do it in a positive way,” said Lynn, an adjunct art teacher at the University of Memphis.
opens in a new windowPaul Taylor, co-founder of Crosstown Sound, told them everyone’s art matters.
“Art predates written language,” he said. “It’s human nature from the very beginning to express through art. It’s within all of us to trust and have the willpower to get past our own self doubt to allow ourselves to express.”
The students and their guest instructors spent time during several sessions talking about their brains.
The discussions were led by Frank Jemison of the ACE Awareness Foundation.
He explained how the brain responds to stress, trauma and violence.
How exposure to strong, frequent, prolonged and destructive Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, can overload a young mind’s defense systems and impair its normal development.
How children of trauma can live in a near-constant state of fight, flight or freeze. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are flowing, even when no real threat is present.
“Our thinking brains turn off and we shift down into our emotional brains,” Jemison explained. “And if we feel threatened, we shift way down into our survival brains.
“The problem comes when our brains feel under constant threat from violence in our home or neighborhood. Then we’re constantly in fight-or-flight mode. We can’t think. We just act and react.”
Jemison also explained neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience.
“It can feel overwhelming, like things will always be this way, or we’ll always act this way,” he said. “But we actually have the power to change our brains, to heal trauma.”
He showed the students maps of how the course of the Mississippi River has dramatically changed over time.
“If the big, powerful Mississippi River can change its course by tens and hundreds of miles, then we can change our brains by changing the course of our own experiences,” he said.
Riley’s students aren’t the first to work with Grounded’s “Me and the Light” curriculum.
In 2018, the group began conducting classes with youth at Hope Academy inside the Shelby County Juvenile Detention Center.
Devonte Holloway had been there three days when he met Sister Peace.
“At first, I thought, ‘This woman is crazy,’” he told Riley’s students.
Then Sister Peace began leading Devonte and other detainees on a meditation walk.
“Something crumpled up inside me,” Devonte said. “I just started to break down. Then I just started talking.”
He talked about how his mother couldn’t handle him and how his grandmother tried.
“I was always hanging with the older guys who kept saying, ‘That’s cool, that’s cool,’ whatever I did.”
He talked about how he kept getting into trouble at school and couldn’t remember how many schools he’d been to.
“I didn’t have anyone sit me down and say, ‘What you’re doing is wrong,’” he said.
He talked about how his world was punctuated by arguments, shouting matches, fights and gunshots.
“I was a ticking time bomb,” he said.
He talked about his infant daughter.
“I want to be the father my father never was,” he said.
That’s when Sister Peace put her arm around his shoulder and started calling him Braveheart.
“That’s when Devonte took a quantum leap, and he became our teacher,” Sister Peace told the students.
After Devonte graduated from Hillcrest High last year, he became Grounded’s newest and youngest team member.
He’s also helping Juvenile Court officials Joyce Anderson and Timothy Ruben with a current class at the JDC, now in week 4.
“Being with Grounded put me in a better place,” he told Riley’s students. “I had no hope for myself. I felt like that’s what they brung in to me. I never wish to get back in that mindset I was in before.”
A few weeks ago, Devonte’s brother-in-law was shot and killed.
“I talked to my grandma. I took a slow walk,” he told the students. “I know I have to be strong for my daughter and my family.”
The Grounded guest instructors shared more than their time.
opens in a new windowChris Dean, a producer for Mountaintop Media, talked to students about how he overcame the anger and fear he felt as a child.
Dean grew up in South Memphis. When he was 5, his father was killed in a gang shootout.
“Sometimes I felt so hungry, I told my mother my stomach was broken,” he said.
Young men around him taught him to ignore all emotions except anger and to meet any slight with aggression.
“They were preparing me for the streets and for prison,” Dean said.
As a kid, he had nightmares that he was stuck in a storm drain as people kept walking past him.
“My hands and arms were sticking out, but nobody would help me,” Dean told the students.
When Dean was 18, somebody did.
President Obama spoke at Booker T. Washington High School’s 2011 graduation ceremony. Dean was chosen to introduce him.
Obama was so impressed, he wrote Dean a recommendation letter to Lane College. Dean got a scholarship and summer internships at The Commercial Appeal and the White House.
At the newspaper, Dean worked on a special project on Memphis poverty with photojournalist Alan Spearman.
Along with cinematographer Mark Adams, they created a short film about Dean’s life and surroundings called “ opens in a new windowAs I Am.”
That project became the impetus for Grounded, co-founded by Spearman, Adams, Lucidon and Sister Peace.
“When you share your art with the world, you’re putting that light and kindness and goodness into the world,” Dean told the students.
“And you can help people get through a lot of traumatic things.”
Dean didn’t know exactly where his father was murdered until last year, when he and his grandmother took a walk through the neighborhood with Sister Peace.
“My grandma showed me the spot,” Dean said.
It was a small park. Grounded commissioned metal artist Stephanie Mercedes to turn the site into a small memorial.
Mercedes melted bullet casings and made 23 small bells – one for each year of Dean’s father’s life.
Dean and his family had a picnic at the park. They hung the bells like chimes from a tree.
“To step into that pain and sit with it and understand that we’re still a family and we got to keep going,” Dean said.
“It helped my family release a little bit of that trauma.”
On Fridays, students were encouraged to find creative ways to express what they’d learned that week.
Week 1: “Share something you created as a response to the film ‘Me and the Light.’”
DT Peterson, a junior, attached small buckets to the walls of East High and filled them with inspiring quotes.
He called them Buckets of Hope.
“Anyone can take a quote from the bucket whenever they feel the need for kind or inspiring words,” DT explained.
“If someone is having a bad day or not in the mood, just a few words can take them from bad to good. It can also give you a good feeling to help someone.”
DT encouraged classmates to add their own quotes, and share the quotes on texts and social media.
“In order to love who you are you cannot hate the experiences that shaped you.”
“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.”
Riley wasn’t surprised by the project.
“If you don’t see the best in yourself, DT will help you find it,” Mrs. Riley said. “He’s always reminding his peers and teachers of their value to him and our world.”
Week 4: “Create and share an expression of gratitude to a person, place or thing that carries you through difficult times.”
Azaria Boyd, a junior, put on an orange dress and ballet slippers.
She went into a room lined with windows and filled with light.
She turned on her video recorder and Will Young’s tender version of “What the World Needs Now.”
“I am grateful for a lot,” she explained later. “This video shows that I am grateful for my body and my limbs. I am grateful for my ability to dance. I am grateful for having the opportunity to be in this program.”
Valerie June was moved to tears.
”Every time I walk out the house now, I just do a little twirl,” she told the students. “I’m going to shine today. Azaria was definitely born to shine.”
Week 6: “What does ‘Be What a Bullet Can’t Be’ mean to you? Use any form of creativity to express how to ‘Be What a Bullet Can’t Be.’”
Abel Billings, a junior, drew a black and white silhouette of the path of a bullet.
The bullet pierces a person’s heart, then breaks into three ribbons with red hearts at the ends.
Billings said he wanted “to show the bullet becoming something it can’t, that being an explosion of love or something like that.”
A diagonal line that splits the drawing “is the shape of a heartbeat,” he said.
Chris Dean, who has a heart condition, said the drawing spoke to him on three levels.
“My own heart problems,” he told the students. “My dad being killed and that attacking my heart. And just being an African American man and being told what you’re supposed to deliver into the world.”
He thanked Abel for sharing the drawing with the class.
“When my dad was killed, I could have come out in the world with hate and revenge,” Dean said. “This represents what I chose to let come out the other side of my heart, which is love.”
Riley plans to use Grounded’s “Me and the Light” curriculum again in the coming school year.
She and Azaria, who is East High’s incoming class president, are working to expand the program to more students, regardless of whether classes are held in person or online.
“This is the new normal,” Mrs. Riley said.
Meanwhile, 10 students are participating in the 2020 Grounded Summer Ambassador program and earning a small stipend.
“We recognized through our eight-week pilot program that students faced many challenges due to the disruption of school and extended isolation because of COVID-19,” Spearman said.
“We also recognized the loss of learning and connection would continue into the summer, creating a large educational, social and emotional gap that would be hard to fill when school resumes.”
The 10 students outlined their summer goals last week.
Abel Billings is collaborating with a creative writer and using digital art to connect with others and share stories.
James Chambers is working on a story that will incorporate the concepts of neuroplasticity.
Da’Charius Brooks is creating a music video that explores the concept of being boxed in.
“Usually, when we’re in school, it’s more centered around book work and things of that nature,” Da’Charius said. “But anytime when we can just create and use the right side of our brain, it’s refreshing to see something new.”
DT Peterson is expanding Buckets of Hope to include hopeful and optimistic images from the Black Lives Matter protests.
Ivy Collins wants to explore and challenge the lack of representation of skin tones in beauty industry products.
Tadavion Jones is collaborating on music with Grounded team members to explore “Be What a Bullet Can’t Be.”
“This experience with Grounded has inspired me to start being more of an advocate for change,” Tadavion said.
Mariah Gray wants to find ways to engage in healthy debate and challenge people’s viewpoints on issues of race and inequality.
Cedric Fentress is using poetry to explore the differing intergenerational thoughts on protests.
Eryn Holloman is sharing the beauty of Memphis through photographs to help redefine the image of the city.
Azaria Boyd wants to create a student performance of a poem she wrote for the class.
She placed the text of the poem next to a photograph of a single rose growing out of concrete.
In a world full of hate be love
In a world full of pessimism be optimistic
In a world of arrogance be humble
In a world full of bullets be what the bullet can’t
Live in joy
“My main take-away from the classes,” Azaria said, “was that you can turn your pain into art and be an inspiration to yourself and others … Despite all of our differences, I know we all have a light and can be an inspiration to the world.”
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.