‘In 22 years, I have never seen anything quite like it’


When musician, writer and performer Lois Walden visited an inner city London school to engage with 24 shy and introverted students, Karen Sullivan was uncertain about the impact she would have. But the experience left her – and the students –mesmerised.

A small group of 24 students is gathered in the library at George Green’s School on the Isle of Dogs. After a period of fiddling with hair, averted gazes, rustling and whispering, their attention is caught by the tiny, tousle-haired American woman in the centre of the room. 

Her energy is dynamic and pervasive, and she is asking them to provide her with a definition of feeling. 

She is, one by one, asking them to tell her their stories – not a précis of their family structure and interests, but the story of their emotions, their dreams, what they are feeling right now. Here. And, one by one, they open up to her, and begin to reveal little glimpses of fear, angst, pride, aspiration, anger, frustration and hope – little glimpses of what’s inside.

She encourages them to reach up their hands – grasp at something intangible, a dream perhaps. They all comply. I am a little bit amazed.

The woman is Lois Walden, who is over from the USA to promote her book Afterworld. I mention this here, because it is pivotal to the workshop she is undertaking. Lois was a founding member of Sisters of Glory, who opened Woodstock and played at the Vatican. She’s a musician, a composer, a writer, a performer and a teaching artist.

At home in America, she travels the country helping teenagers to get in touch with their emotions, and she’s doing the same thing here, using her book as inspiration. These are students studying English, all 15-years-old, and it’s going to take some doing to unleash their creativity, let alone any emotional expression. They are wary. In fact, as their teacher Salma Akhtar said: “Many of the students involved are introverted and shy.”

I’m particularly interested to see their response to Afterworld, which is a very literary, multi-generational saga set in the Louisiana sugar-cane fields, and absolutely bursting with adult themes. It’s steamy, very sexy, very explicit, very organic, with depravity galore and a host of dysfunctional characters. Three characters come from the natural world: Swamp, Sugar and Afterworld, who is both narrator and sort of holding tank or purgatory for people who have passed away. Nature is an intrinsic part of the novel, but so, too, are the themes of lust, love, abandonment, fear, religious uncertainty, greed, sexuality and, more profoundly, the human condition.

Is it appropriate for a group of multicultural, reserved teenagers? I’m not sure, and Salma is worried, too. She said: “I was afraid we would have complaints from parents; however, when I spoke to the students they said that although they found the novel to be sexually explicit, it had substance and they enjoyed the story. I think this helped them to engage more because they were being treated like adults.”

At lunch, one of the girls confirms that they have all read Fifty Shades of Grey and are not fazed by adult content.

Lois is mesmerising, bursting with an almost visible energy, and she moves close to the students as she speaks to them, drawing them into an inexplicable place of safety, trust and mutual understanding. 

I can’t take my eyes off her, and neither can the students. She guides them through a meditation. I keep an eye open. The students are still, breathing slowly, concentrating on her words. A shrill bell signalling the end of a lesson elsewhere in the school provokes no response. 

Lois uses nature, birth, the elements, the immediacy of the moment, to encourage them to listen to their inner thoughts, to listen with their entire beings. They do. This quiet group of children is asked to write down a few lines about how nature describes them; how they are when they are one with nature. She has literally pulled the strings of their creativity, and it begins to flow.

One girl is inside a cave on a beach, crying, and the rain mixes with her tears. Her soul moves through the water and she is free.

Another is a flower, the sun warming the dew on her petals, but she feels claustrophobic; she needs her own space and other flowers are crowding her, competing with her.

A quiet boy is the space between the spaces; he is the colour in white, in a place where time does not exist. He is nobody but he is everybody.

The outpourings are vivid, exquisitely written and deeply moving. Several students cry when they read their impressions; they are eager to share. Their colleagues listen closely, and we all look on in astonishment.

It is lunchtime now, and the students are alive with excitement. “She is the most amazing person I’ve ever met,” says one. They are gleeful and crowd round Lois to get books signed, to ask questions, to engage further. They are back early from lunch, keen for more. They are not disappointed.

The students are now encouraged to write a script, to work together to create a moment in time, using Swamp, Sugar and Afterworld as the basis for characters that they will act out in a sort of tableau. 

There are four groups of six, and each huddles together to choose their characters and work out how they are going to “physicalise” emotions and use a single word to describe how they are feeling. I’m not sure I understand what’s expected of them, but the students clearly do.

Just before their performances, Lois asks them to change their character. They respond instantly, and act out their characters without words or movement. Then they utter their words – Help, I beg you, Leave me alone, Come to safety, You are arrogant, We need attention, I’m supreme. 

The words spill from them with little prodding from Lois. There is much more to this scenario than meets the eye. I feel like I am witnessing some sort of catharsis. The students are visibly moved and engaged; they are pulling things from deep within themselves. I cannot do this justice. I cannot explain what I am seeing, because, in 22 years of writing about the emotional health of young people, I have never seen anything quite like it.

It is time for Lois to leave. The students are saddened and wish for more time. Lois says: “Don’t forget you are alive. You are the hope. Do not give up on your hope.”

Twenty-four sets of eyes are moist, gleaming with new ideas and, most of all, self-belief and trust. Each student busies him/herself with a feedback sheet, and they write things like “it gave me insight into myself and what I want”, “it took me out of my comfort zone”, “Lois’s perspective on life has really opened my eyes to what I want”, “I will make the most of every opportunity that gets thrown at me and be more optimistic”, “‘don’t be afraid to dream’ is a quote I learned and shall live by”, “I have learned new ways to create and write without it having to feel like work”. This list goes on and on. 

I catch up with Lois after the workshop and ask her how she does it. She looks slightly perplexed, and says: “Whatever happens, happens because we trust each other. If they feel that I am fully present, in the room, there with and for them, they will usually be present in the room emotionally themselves. 

“They know that I have no agenda, that I expect no outcome. I just want them to sense, feel, and know what is inside them, what is their struggle, what is their joy, what is their pain, what matters to them in life. I think that blows their minds. How often does an adult ask a teenager what matters to them?”

She continued: “I was worried that students with a strict religious upbringing would be offended. But then, what is risqué? These are teenagers. If they are not having sex, they wish they were having sex. The book is jam-packed with pertinent, contemporary themes. That is why it worked in the room.

“There is a personal, visceral component that any student can relate to, perceive, understand in his or her life. Have the student personalise what they read, what they see. Let the literature, art, history be relevant within their world, and they will comprehend more fully the material at hand.”

Many of the students comment that the meditation has somehow freed them, and pledge to use it more in their own creative efforts in the future. Salma says she will definitely employ it in her classes as a method of releasing creativity and emotions, too. 

I’m surprised by its effectiveness, but as Lois says: “When you slow down the breath, you slow down the mind chatter, the rule chatter, the judgement of self and others.

“If you can feel an altered state within your breath and body, you are free to shift into a subtle frequency, a band, a breath that creates a space to simply be. That is an extraordinary space for a teenager.”

I mention that the natural and “seen” and “unseen” worlds and characters that were natural elements seem to be an unexpectedly emotive and inspiring theme for the teenagers, but Lois is adamant that nature will always provide fundamental inspiration, even in inner-city schools and their occupants. Nature is where we find meaning, she says.

Lois shimmers with the same energy and euphoria she has just invested in the students, and she’s happy. Very happy. She says: “Once they had permission to express, physicalise, write or act out the themes within the book that pertained to their lives, they just went with it. It was breathtaking, and I really do not know why or how it happens. It just happens. I am the luckiest person in the world. I get to witness their transformation, their freedom.  When it happens, it is my greatest joy.”

And, as it happens, on this particular day in George Green’s School on the Isle of Dogs, I’m feeling pretty lucky, too.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com

Further information
Lois Walden will be visiting the UK in 2014 to provide workshops for schools. For information about this or Afterworld, visit www.loiswalden.com

CAPTION: Mesmerising: Lois Walden working with students from George Green’s School in east London


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