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Grit and resilience, and mothering and othering

Last Tuesday, I got a call no mother wants to receive. My 14-year-old had been attacked by a group of teenagers while walking home from school just blocks from our house.

Wells has walked home from school every day since fourth grade. His abiding love for the city of Raleigh stems from his ability to navigate our alleys and streets, our stores and restaurants. Often people stop me and say, “I know your son.”

In our age of helicopter parents, his deep desire for independence has challenged my mother lion instinct to protect, to hover. On the night of the attack, I begged him to consider home school.

In sixth grade, he wrote a poem for his English class that included:

I am a man of this city,

I can walk everywhere I need to go – school, the YMCA, home – everything I need is here within these downtown blocks.

In Ferrel Guillory’s article on Friday, he talked about a recent survey of moms. “The survey found mothers anxious and worried that the U.S. has become a more difficult place to raise children. Two-thirds of mothers said their children were less safe, with many expressing concern over bullying, sexual predators, and decline in moral values.”

Two days after the attack, Wells went back to the school that he loves, and he insisted on walking home. He took a different route, he didn’t wear his earphones, I tracked him on his phone, and it was still the longest 30 minutes of my life.

We know grit and resilience are important, but as a parent it sure is hard to watch our children acquire those attributes.

Which brings me to my other boy, Hutch.

A couple of weeks ago, Ferrel wrote an article about the need for rigor in education. He posed some questions for me, and others, to wrestle with:

Are our schools rigorous enough?

Or, to put it another way, do we have high expectations of our students?

If you look at Hutch’s standardized test scores, objectively he is a strong math student. But it doesn’t come easily for him.

As he was deciding which classes to register for in eleventh grade – the year that matters most for college, right? – he opted not to register for AP Calculus. Mistake, I thought.

He picked an easier math class, and he will get a higher grade. Big mistake, I thought.

Days later, I was at KIPP Gaston, and Tammi Sutton was talking about the importance of rigor – including the importance of AP Calculus. She thinks AP Calculus is so important that it is ok with her for students to take the class twice. Driving home, I considered changing Hutch’s course registration.

As I scanned the news each morning, the headlines screamed. In the LA Times, “This high school makes every student take AP classes.” In The Washington Post, “Stop telling kids you’re bad at math. You are spreading math anxiety.” In Education Week, “Can we close the gap in AP participation?”

Over hubcap pancakes at Big Eds, Ferrel weighed in, “It’s high school!” Better to take the harder class. Better to get the lower grade. Better to get used to the sensation of having your brain hurt. I know, I know, I thought.

Hutch assures me the three other AP classes he is taking will provide him with plenty of grit and resilience.

And then there is Nation.

I met Nation Hahn through the Z. Smith Reynolds Community Leadership Council the fall before his wife, Jamie, was murdered. He called me ma’am, and it is fair to say that life has not been the same since.

Children come to you in unexpected ways. But for landing in the arms of my adopted parents, I would have grown up in rural Alabama with a very different array of opportunities than I have enjoyed. From the moment we met, I have been rather painfully aware that I am older than Nation’s biological mother.

I never knew Jamie. And it has taken me three years to realize there is no fixing the loss of Jamie for Nation. Most days I am relieved and thankful Nation has the courage to get up out of bed and attempt to do transformational work. At EdNC, Nation and I stretch each other in ways that are often uncomfortable, but I am hopeful the future of education and maybe even North Carolina are better for it. He sat at my dining room table just yesterday, and said, “do I get to talk yet?”

In celebration of Mother’s Day, and the grit and resilience that I see in these boys I love as well as in the eyes of students I meet all across our state, Kahlil Gibran reminds us why we do this thing called mothering:

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”


But how much grit and resilience is it fair for us to expect of children?

A couple of weeks ago, EdNC joined more than 500 leaders for the Triangle Community Foundation’s event: What Matters 2016: A Region of Opportunity.

Dr. Tony Iton, the keynote speaker from the California Endowment, gave a strong talk on health inequities, the American propensity for “othering,” and the need he sees for us to work together to change the narrative and our communities. This idea of othering stuck with me.

Do the boys who attacked my son feel like part of our community? I bet not.

Shareen, a high school student, who has started @GirlTalkNC joined us for the TCF event, and I wondered what she thought of these communities we have built where othering happens, it is accepted, and so children grow up needing grit and resilience.

Our children are less safe.

Our mothers are anxious.

Let’s do something about it.

All of us.

At the TCF event, President and CEO Lori O’Keefe spoke of access to opportunity in the Triangle, equity, and focusing on what we are for, rather than against. That’s a start.

LOK tweet

I am headed to Singapore. I think rigorous math and science opportunities for all students might be part of the solution. Hutch, take note.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.