For three years of my life, when I taught at a small, independent high school in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, these two words became a beloved morning ritual. Four days a week, Monday through Thursday, the students and faculty (and sometimes even some of the staff) assembled in the basement multi-purpose room for the short all-school meeting that began our day.
Before the meeting began, the room was filled with the sounds of conversation and laughter and all of the energy you would expect from nearly a hundred and fifty active, intelligent teenagers.
And then, with two simple words, the room fell silent.
The result would have been remarkable anywhere, but it was especially effective (and affecting) in the middle of a city, somewhere that silence, in any form, was sometimes all too hard to find. It wasn’t intended as a time of prayer (although some people may have used it that way). It was intended as a short time (usually less than a minute, perhaps even thirty seconds) to let go of the outside world, take a deep breath, and transition ourselves – minds, bodies, emotions, and energy – to focus on the day ahead.
I’ve always enjoyed quiet places, cemeteries as much as libraries, but the experience of being in complete silence (or at least as close as we could get) was something altogether different. There was a certain strangeness to it, especially at first, in a world so filled with natural and man-made noise.
It took me a few weeks to learn to really embrace it, to learn to close my eyes and let myself get lost in it: it wasn’t time for me to pray; it wasn’t time for me to worry; it wasn’t time for me to plan. It was time to let myself stop thinking (and, sometimes, even to feel my breathing and my heartbeat – or just the coolness of the table underneath my arms). What I came to realize, once I learned to let myself stop thinking – about anything, good or bad, even for just those few short, precious seconds each morning – was (and is) how much calmer, more relaxed, more energized, and more confident I felt (and feel) afterward.
I still love those short moments of intentional silence, however rare and elusive they sometimes prove to be, and I still embrace them whenever I get the chance, even in the most mundane places – sitting in a parking lot, standing in an empty classroom, sitting in a bathroom stall. And I’ve learned that, like so many things in life, it isn’t the place that matters: it’s the experience – and the beauty of the silence that surrounds me.