ANDERSON — Surrounded by her classmates at COMPASS, Lauren McCowan, 14, read the letter that detailed her struggle with the death of her grandfather in 2017, the death of her father a week later and their joint funeral before throwing it into the fire pit and saying, “I release you.”
A recent transplant from Muncie to Highland Middle school at the time of their deaths, the seventh grader struggled with big changes in her personal and school life at the same time, changes that led her to attempt suicide.
But the ceremony Monday that included the burning of letters and the making of s’mores, one of four for students at COMPASS to welcome the new year, may help Lauren face 2020 with a new attitude.
“I got rid of all my pain from 2017. It seemed like we were all happy because we got rid of some of the pain that was inside of us,” Lauren said. “It helped because me watching the paper burn up, I know they are in heaven looking down at me, and I just need to make them proud.”
Transformative ceremonies like this, which are a staple of yoga and reiki and other Eastern health and well-being practices, relieve fears, sadness and frustrations and are among several ways people usher in a new year. Though practitioners in more formal ceremonies use flash paper, which leaves no ash or residue, the students at COMPASS used ordinary classroom paper.
The ritual, Lauren said, was healing enough that she may continue it after leaving COMPASS.
Making the s’mores, she said, was a way to move forward in positivity.
The alternative school’s officials have assembled an arsenal of tools, including a therapy dog and special activities, such as the burning ceremony to help students, many of whom have behavioral and academic issues because of trauma.
COMPASS Director Kristal McCorkle said she came up with the idea after her older daughter and her best friend released balloons in a similar spirit at the beginning of the year.
McCorkle discussed it as a possibility at the school with her own best friend, Kim Cleaver, a 19-year teaching veteran in her third year at COMPASS.
“She said, ‘You can’t do balloons because it’s going to pollute the environment,’” McCorkle said.
As a result, McCorkle pivoted to the idea of a burning ceremony.
“I’ve always loved fire. It’s always been healing for me,” she said. “And I had to tie in s’mores because they’re so fun.”
Students first were instructed to write letters describing their feelings and emotions regarding someone or something that hurt them. This could include broken promises, physical harm or abuse, and worries.
McCorkle scanned the letters just enough to ensure the students met the spirit of the assignment so she could give them a grade without invading their privacy. She left it to students to decide whether they would read their letters aloud at the ceremony.
“Some of my classes have really gotten into the sharing, but others didn’t. There’s no right or wrong,” she said.
What the students get out of the exercise besides practicing their English/language arts skills, McCorkle said, is learning healthy ways to release their emotions and move on from life’s challenges.
“We talked about not allowing those things to build up and fester,” she said.