The seven high school seniors looked like models for a Norman Rockwell painting, probably titled "Rainy Afternoon." Shoes off, they spread across a blanket on the floor, everyone within arm's reach of a large bowl of M&Ms.;
Outside, a harsh wind blew and rain fell steadily, but, indoors, it was warm. A girl rested her head against her boyfriend's leg. Dreamy music came from a portable stereo.
Rockwell would have set the scene in someone's living room. However, these teen-agers were inside a classroom at Oakwood School, where the "Three R's" have been joined by a fourth one--relaxation.
"Allow the rain to disappear from your thoughts, and let calmness overwhelm you," intoned Eileen Fond, a therapist who teaches stress management at the private school in North Hollywood. "You are going on a journey into a forest to find out what's bothering you now."
Fond led the teen-agers along an imaginary path toward their destination, a hilltop.
"You want very much to get there," she said. "But suddenly you encounter an obstacle. Maybe rocks have fallen, maybe trees. It's huge, seemingly impassable. Now you look at the obstacle, and you see the face of someone on it. You will definitely see a face."
At the conclusion of the "guided imagery" exercise, the five boys and two girls talked about how they had gotten around the obstacle and what emotions they felt. They checked their "stress dots," small circles of temperature-sensitive material that Fond had placed on their wrists at the beginning of class. Color changes in the dots are thought to reflect changes in the wearer's level of stress.
"Another reason for the dots is that I touch the person when I put it on," Fond said. "It helps create intimacy and helps people open up."
A state-licensed marriage, family and adolescent therapist, Fond is in her third year of teaching a stress-management class at Oakwood. It meets once a week for two hours. Whereas previous classes were open to all students, this semester's is for seniors only. It is part of the school's "special studies" program, wherein parents, alumni and others serve as volunteer instructors.
Fond, a stress-management specialist with a counseling practice in Encino, said she volunteers at Oakwood because her two children have attended the school. A one-time teacher, she believes there is nothing frivolous or pretentious about stress-management classes for high school students.
"It is a very stressful time of life," Fond said. "You're both an adult and a child." She listed major causes of stress: "home--meaning family--and friends, grades and, of course, college. Seniors are stressed about taking the SATs, doing well, applying to college. I tell them that if we can turn our eyeballs inward now, if we know who we are, we can deal better with stress throughout our life."
Although Oakwood may be the only San Fernando Valley area school with a continuing class in stress management, a few other private schools are addressing the subject.
"We currently have special assemblies for seniors to help them handle rejections from colleges," said Harry Salamandra, dean of students at Harvard School in Studio City. "We also have them for ninth-graders to handle the stress of moving into upper school, because there is a significantly greater amount of work."
Ruth Rich, health instruction specialist for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said public schools touch on stress management.
"We do it in our DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, where an officer comes in one day a week," Rich said. "He talks about how kids don't have to resort to drug abuse or suicide when they become decision makers."
She said teachers in psychology and health education classes describe to students the stress-reduction benefits of deep breathing and physical exercise.
Elaine Leader is a clinical social worker who runs Teen Line, a help line staffed by teen-age volunteers and headquartered at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
"A number of schools have rap classes, but they're not really stress management," she said. "There's a need for it. I work with kids all the time, and they're all seriously stressed. It's important to know that stress management is more than learning how to relax. It's how to work things through and how to communicate. If you communicate what's bothering you, your stress goes down."
In Eileen Fond's rainy-day class at Oakwood School, the students would not reveal the identities of the faces they had seen on their obstacles. One girl, however, talked about an argument she had with her parents the night before.
Despite the session of guided imagery, the girl's stress dot remained black. This suggested that her muscles and capillaries were constricted by stress, preventing the warming flow of blood to her skin.
"My parents think I'm being self-centered lately," she said. "A family friend my age is coming from Paris for 10 days and my parents just expect me to show her around. I've got a term paper to write and college applications to complete and plans with my friends. I don't like it that they didn't even ask if it's OK."
She said the argument degenerated into a recitation of past grievances by all parties.
"Everything in my family gets down to material things," the girl continued. "My parents say, 'We do this for you; what do you do for us?' I tend to explode, and it gets reciprocated. Then, if they get calm, it makes me madder. It's not fair. They both work, so I have to be independent, but sometimes they take the independence away without asking."
"When there's poor communication and conflict," said Fond, "we only come from our own perspective."
"They always threaten to take away my car keys," the girl said. "That's their answer to everything."
A murmur of agreement came from the group.
One boy said he remained anxious throughout the exercise because he was awaiting word from the college of his choice, Tufts University.
Another said he was angry at his father. The teen-ager had read Jack Kerouac's novel, "On the Road," and, excited by it, was planning a trip.
"When I told my father, he said, 'If that's what you want to do, it's your choice,' which is like saying, 'Go ahead, but I think it really sucks,' " the boy said. "That's his attitude about everything I do."
Fond, who relishes confidences from the students, does not urge them to behave differently toward parents, teachers, girlfriends or boyfriends. Instead she makes neutral statements or puts in a word for deep abdominal breathing.
"Stress is positive as well as negative," she said. "It's not a matter of doing away with stress. Slowing down inside doesn't necessarily mean slowing down outside. It's a matter of dealing better with stress, and the simplest tool is deep breathing."
After class, a couple of students said the breathing and other techniques had helped them.
"I do it when I get mad at myself," one said.
"It's gotten automatic," said another. "I do it without even thinking about it."
Fond said that as a result of the class, she has acquired teen-age clients in her private practice.
"But that's not my goal," she said. "My goal is just to do the class. Adolescence is really a time of maturing. If things aren't dealt with now, such as how to handle stress, you just have to face it again as an adult."