He wouldn’t have done well on the Impulsivity Test for children on Angela Duckworth’s webpage, but I think he was the grittiest kid I ever saw come through the elementary school where I was principal.
He’d had a horrific young life by the time he was nine – and he walked through the door angry on the day that his latest foster-mother registered him well after school was underway that year. The folder forwarded by his former school was thick with school changes, the worst of grade reports, and assessments by all kinds of professionals who’d been charged to take a look at him based on referrals of one sort or another. He was tough. His first words to me? “I hate this f’ing school.” He’d been there all of five minutes.
I noticed that his blue eyes constantly darted sideways to check out the people in the room. I knew that look. I could feel his intensity almost as heat rolling off his rail thin body and I think today I understood even then that beneath his anger lived a depth of real fear. He was just a child. He was a survivor.
When I first read his records, it was obvious why he was hostile to adults specifically, but others in general. His nuclear family had self-destructed around him and he’d been a tiny victim of that ugliness. Enough said. By the time he reached us, he’d seen at least 16 different home placements, including at least one brief stint in a residential home. He ran through them in a litany one day for me as if he was reciting the alphabet. He showed no emotion.
I placed him with the best teacher I had and hoped that he would settle down and find a peace that would allow him to learn. He tested below grade level which was consistent with his records, but his new teacher saw capability within him. He loved science. He hated math. He discovered a love of writing with her. He thought books “sucked.” When his teacher shared an intense poem of his with me, it was obvious he wasn’t writing subdivision poetry. There were no rainbows or cute puppies in his young life. His words were ones of abandonment.
He didn’t do homework unless his foster-mother made him and it was war at the kitchen table from the stories she shared. We created sign-off logs and contracts, offered extra time shooting hoops with a male assistant, and checked in with his foster-mother routinely. He turned in next to nothing. But he finally found a bit of a passion when he got into building simple circuits and figured out all kinds of cool things he could do with bulbs and batteries. When he wasn’t fiddling at a science center, he wrote about hating his family and foster siblings or stared out the window. He had no safety net. And, he was nine years old. A prior assessor had labeled him as a slow learner. But, none of us thought that at all when he forgot long enough that he lived in a child’s version of hell to show that he was a curious, interested kid who loved to learn.
He’d end up yelling at someone in school pretty much every day. Sometimes the teacher. Sometimes other kids. Sometimes … me. Once I invited him to come for a “lunch-bunch” Wednesday in my office and to bring some classmates. He invited no one. He came and wandered my office, picking up science gizmos I kept for just that purpose. He was intrigued with my framed black rattlesnake skin hanging above my desk and wondered if I’d shot it. I told him no that it had been found by a friend – a roadkill in New Mexico. Because I loved snakes, I told the boy the story of how I acquired that skin. My desktop computer caught his attention and he wanted to know if he could type on it. I let him do that a bit and I remember the delete key mesmerized him – he typed his name and deleted it over and over again. These were pre-laptop days, pre-video game days, pre-almost-every-kid has a device days. He was amazingly focused.
When we finally sat down to eat lunch together, I asked him if he liked school. I will never forget his response in a somewhat agitated voice. “I hate it here. Kids here don’t like to fight. They won’t fight. I like to fight.” I smiled because we were a school that used Glasser’s control theory as a philosophy to underpin community values. Our kindergarteners began early with conversations about solving problems with others by using words. It worked in the sandboxes and in their kitchen center. By the time our kids were nine like this little boy, they might roughhouse a bit on the playground but they, in general, just weren’t physically aggressive with each other unless someone really lost it.
I asked him why he liked to fight and he went back to wandering my office. No answer. I was ignored. Was he rude? Not really. Just not willing to talk about something that likely made him uncomfortable. Then he turned. “I like to fight because it makes me feel good. That’s why.” It’s all he said. I filed it away. There was no need to share it with the psychologist he saw every week. We all knew that anger was his weapon and his tool to escape class, the playground, the cafeteria – anywhere he felt unsafe. Especially foster families.
I came to value this nine-year old boy. His story has stuck with me for a very long time. I can still see the dusting of freckles on his nose, his darting blue eyes, and his pale arms learning against my desk as he typed away, standing at my desk. He was with us for three months and then disappeared into the lost world of foster children. We got a call from his next school asking about him and what we’d done that had worked since his grades were better at our school than anywhere else in his record. Let me be clear. We weren’t perfect for him or with him. I’m not laying claim to any savior mythology. But, I think we understood what he needed from us, mostly, and we didn’t need impulsivity test data to tell us that. What we did need was what we valued as a staff in our work with all our kids – a sense of empathy, trust, and respect.
We didn’t have much to share with the counselor who called. He’s smarter than his past files show, we said. He loves science and experiments. He can write poetry when he wants to. We shared that he was pretty well-behaved while with us other than the time he pushed an assistant while getting off the bus one day. Angry. Who wouldn’t be, we asked?
I’d never give that little boy Duckworth’s survey. It would only reinforce all the negatives in his life. And, I don’t think he lacked self-control at all. Every seemingly impulsive action he took - from his anger to his distractedness - was motivated to give him space to breathe and control over a world gone awry.
I still wonder, when I think of him, where he is today. I like to imagine that he found the perfect family and went on to graduate from college, maybe a science major. I like to avoid thinking that he’s in prison or dead. However, my dreams and my nightmares are both possible. I do know this. He was one of the most resilient little guys I ever knew. I didn’t expect him to focus all the time on school work, to become a model student holding on to his bootstraps. Instead, I expected him to find some slack with us, a little safety valve of a school where he could find relief from what Paul Tough reports from medical research as allostatic stress – a huge interference with a child’s working memory.
Finally, I’m not a fan of Angela Duckworth’s references to Sir Francis Galton. This little boy was the kind of child Galton demonized in his Victorian Eugenics pseudo-science. He could have been the poster child who the Commonwealth of Virginia sterilized under its Eugenics Laws, and he was the kid we could have handled in very wrong ways through the systems we employ to label children such as him because of his learning gaps, behaviors, and personality.
I feel this way about Duckworth and her Grit surveys because ethically I don’t like seeing Sir Francis Galton, father of the Eugenics Movement and social Darwinist, cited as a rationale by any modern-day researcher in regards to children and schooling. There is no good reason. It’s that simple to me.
While reminiscing tonight about the grittiest 9-year-old I ever encountered, it was as if he reached out to remind me today why I feel the way the I do. And, I remember good times with him that transcended his anger, distractedness, and lack of focus. I remember him well.