Learning What Grit Is: The Immeasurable Impact of Being at Elkhorn Middle School

Only halfway through my first year at Franklin County’s Elkhorn Middle School, my experience has redefined my framework for the word ‘grit,’ redefining me as a teacher along with it.

I thought that I knew what grit was in 2001 when, three years into college, my internship as an Ocean Engineer did exactly what an internship is supposed to do: inform a life decision. I don’t think that my dad saw it as grit when I confessed a study change to English Literature. His reply: “You’re going to be a poet, aren’t you?”

I thought that I knew what grit was in 2003 when, back in my hometown, a fresh Bachelor of Arts, I was hired as a middle school teacher a week before the start of the year. A week in, I felt out of place — to the point that I typed, printed and posted a motivational statement by my bed: “Do your best. It’s better than most people’s”. To this day, fourteen years into my teaching career, I’m still not sure if that apostrophe is in the right place.

But I’ve found the right place at Elkhorn Middle School — a place where a teacher can be both surrounded by and positively influenced by grit at every turn.

This past summer, before my first day at EMS, I educated myself on the history of Franklin County with L.F. Johnson’s The History of Franklin County, Kentucky, “…from the widow at Quinn’s Bottom who, in 1792, put out a roof fire with a bucket of uncooked, scrambled eggs…”;“…to an 1857 election where, with the Frankfort community rife with anti-Irish sentiment, Judge Thomas B. Monroe accompanied an Irishman to the polls and dared someone to stop him.” Gritty move, Judge. Easy with that knife, Judge.

And in addition to learning about my new county, I renewed my interest in Young Adult literature and found Gary Schmidt’s Okay For Now. I became caught up in the reality of a run-of-the-mill family that moves to upstate New York to gain a better wage and live a better life. Change came with tribulation. With tribulation came opportunity. Okay For Now reminded me that the opportunity to live life better was going to involve grit.

For me, it began at our opening day staff meeting, when my new principal expressed himself. He did the unthinkable. He admitted weakness. Admitted exhaustion. And then he backtracked: “But I’m not vulnerable.” And he smiled. He smiled a mildly vulnerable smile. Gritty move, sir. Easy with that smile, sir.

And change came quickly. Tribulation came early. Opportunity knocks often at Elkhorn Middle School but not how you might think.

I’ve worked with a student all year who’s threatened to, and I quote, “…knock the beard off of my face”. Not once. But twice. So there’s grit…

Another has threatened to, and I quote, “…never give up on school though it’s hard.” She only had to say it once. …and then there’s grit.

When that kid threatened to knock the beard from my face (the first time), I laughed it off. When it happened the second time, I knew that a response equal in proportion was necessary. But school isn’t a roadhouse. It’s not even a bowling alley. So there’s grit…

The conflict for me became internal and not external. I slept on it, tossed on it and turned on it. I even thought about it as I carefully shored up the shape of my beard the next morning.

I bought him a binder, gave him a starter-set of loose-leaf paper and even made a title page. I put his name and added ‘Language Arts’. But I had made a second title page, too. The damndest olive branch I’ve ever composed, it was specific to the student, the textual embodiment of fists flying and whisker beards falling. It was the type of poetry that would make a roadhouse bouncer blush. …and then there’s grit.

I showed it to him, watched him kind of read it, and then we tactfully placed it behind the more mundane title page. We even learned to add a second blank piece of paper between the two. I taught him the word ‘translucent’. Don’t ask him to define it, now.

A few weeks later, he was so proud of his title page that he showed it to every member of his class.

One kid viewed it as a lapse in professionalism. Another saw an opportunity and asked for her own tailor-made title page.

“You realize it will be profoundly — that’s a fancy word for ‘very’ — different, right? Because you’re a very different person.”

“Sure,” she replied.

“Like rainbows and unicorns different and dizzying fluorescence.”

She expressed excitement, and a curt smile formed midst my beard.

When another kid told me, and I quote, that she would “…never give up on school though it’s hard,” I felt a sense of urgency that I hadn’t felt in over a decade, and this wasn’t a case of powerful words masking meek ambition.

She sits there, pencil in hand, with a kind of trembling stoicism when listening to directions. When reading, her posture tightens. There have been times that I watch her eyes slowly scan from left to right as she struggles to read some basic syllables — all diphthongs escape her.

She is a modern-day heroine: a person with a seemingly inescapable fate that refuses to accept anything but success. So there’s grit…

In mid-November, I got lucky. She borrowed a book from my shelf that I inadvertently stole from a colleague, Irene Hunt’s The Lottery Rose, a pedestrian late elementary narrative with a front cover that aroused tender curiosity.

“Can I borrow this?”

You’re &%^$%$ right you can! I said in my head.

“Of course you may,” I said outloud.

I never had any intention of reading that book. The cover art alone was enough to dissuade me, a young boy petting a small potted rose in an overgrown garden. But it turned out to be a classic case of judging a book by its cover.

Because by winter break, she was still reading it. And then there’s grit…

In fact, my interest in her interest with the book became so profound that I chose it as a book option for upcoming Literature Circles. I only have fifty pages left and *spoiler alert* I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Harper is going to end up adopting Georgie.

It continued to strike me early on that being a teacher at Elkhorn Middle School was redefining my framework of the word ‘grit’ on the first day that I was openly (and Ithink playfully) mocked. A kid asked to use the restroom and I replied, “No.” So there’s grit…

“But if you don’t let me use the bathroom, how am I supposed to concentrate on my work and be successful?”

And then there was a tenor: “Yeah, you do want her to be SUCCESSFUL, right?”

Then a bass: “Yeah, you do care about her success, don’t you?”

Once the chorus died down, concluding its summative echo of what I’d preached all year, I responded at large: “You are all right. And today she will successfully pee her pants. Or successfully fight through it. It’s a win-win, really.” …and then there’s grit.

I realized a certain levity in my response. It was poignant, tactical and new to me, especially in the face of such staunch opposition.

Grit was developing. My teaching language was changing, and it wasn’t just my new students forcing the change. I was being equally affected by my new colleagues.

On a day in anticipation of what I recollect was the eve of a full moon, a student attempted to ride another student piggy-back down the hall.

I was invisible around the corner, eavesdropping on the back-and-forth orchestrated by two Exploratory teachers that caught them, stopped them and retaught them.

It was the most beautiful combination of savvy and savage I had ever experienced in an educational setting. They played off of each other’s speech like a balance of musical stanzas and choruses. It was a lyrical scolding in a context, the hallway, generally void of routine.

I imagined the students telling me about it later, angry. My reply would have been the same as that given to students angry at being grounded by parents: “Sometimes what we perceive as hate or dislike is actually the opposite. Sometimes it’s caring Always it’s love.”

Every time thereafter, when I found myself redirecting a student within earshot of my new Exploratory colleagues, I found myself reading my adult audience’s body language for approval.

And when my students talk about them and the work they do in their classes, the awe caught in their expressions is all that I need to hear. Because in a field that is encouraging teachers as advocates, the Exploratory teachers at EMS speak the language of “speaking up” — a language that is new to me.

So when EMS began to consider pulling kids from Exploratory classes to make up zeroes in other classes, I found traction in some grit and became a very small part of a large group dedicated to preserving and thus, respecting, their work, time and influence.

I didn’t even fight like that when I had tenure. …and then there’s grit.

I think back to that opening day staff meeting often. Before I knew that my beard could be a casualty of public school teaching. Before the irony in a book as soft-sounding asThe Lottery Rose so heavily impacted a student. Before the word ‘success’ became a classroom cliche.

I used to think of grit as a characteristic best developed from the inside-out but have come to realize that it’s at its most impactful via immersion. The student with a new binder didn’t develop grit from a character education curriculum. The student that’s going to independently finish the first book of her time at middle school didn’t develop the grit to read from a thematic unit. And my teacher speech certainly hasn’t changed because of a professional development opportunity.

In fact, working at Elkhorn Middle School has been the most beneficial professional development opportunity of my life.

EMS should be a place and point of great pride in a community that was founded on grit. And scrambled eggs. And a bit of an anti-Irish sentiment.

EMS and schools like it give everyone that enters its doors an opportunity to develop something that is immeasurable. It will not come up in an audit and it will not come up in a test score or survey, but it matters so much more.

Bio: Billy Cosby is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher at Elkhorn Middle School and has been a public middle school teacher for fourteen years. A member of the Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions team, Billy is currently working to involve his students’ families and the community at-large with his school on a more consistent basis.

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