Giving Her “Grit”

There is a new buzzword in the world of education, and its a real eye roller.

The word is “grit” and it means the ability to handle difficulty; to persevere, to deal with opposition. It’s actually a fabulous idea, and one that a whole lot of parents need to learn. But I guess its an eye roller because so many parents of my generation already know this stuff.

Anyway, the idea of giving a child “grit” means that as adults we step back and let the kids struggle a bit. Its the idea that unless the child has worked hard and struggled at least a little, his success won’t feel like anything much.

I agree.

I was a teacher for a long time. I raised three kids. I grew up in a family of six kids with two busy, working parents.  I know about grit.

I know that too many children are rescued by well meaning parents when their social lives run into conflict. I know that too many kids are celebrated when they haven’t actually achieved their goals. I know that stressed out families try to shield their children from any anxiety or struggle, in a misguided belief that those are dangerous emotions.

But I also know that when I was a child, I didn’t feel particularly excited to get good grades in reading or writing. Ho, hum. I could ace that stuff with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back.  But I was thrilled to get a C plus in chemistry, because THAT was some serious crap.


Years ago my youngest son, Tim, was learning to play hockey. Early in his skating life, he came across a mean spirited, nasty coach. I remember that I picked my little boy up from practice one night. On the way home, I noticed that my 9 year old was in tears in the back seat. When I pressed him, he told me that his coach had called him a “baby” because his wrist shot was so weak. I was outraged, of course. My very best Mamma Bear self reared up to defend my cub. But he was much smarter than I was. When I expressed my outrage and told my boy that I planned to talk to the idiot coach, he said, “Don’t, Mommy.  Just let me think bad words about him in my head. Don’t talk to him.”

So I didn’t.

A few days later, my Tim came home from school, put on his skates and his hockey gloves and headed out to our backyard rink. I didn’t know exactly what he was doing, but I kept peeking out the window at him as the afternoon wore on.  Finally, just at dark, he came in the front door.  Throwing down his gloves, my sweet little boy looked up at me and said, “There! Now I have a damned wrist shot.”

The coach never teased him again.  Grit.

Now I am taking care of my sweet baby Ellie. She is a serene, happy little thing. Up until now, she has rarely cried.

But she has suddenly hit a point in her life when she desperately wants to MOVE! She can scoot on her butt and turn herself around. She can roll over and back again.  But she can’t quite get herself propelled forward to reach her toys. She can’t yet pull herself up.

So I sit with her on the floor every day. I watch her reach for the stacking cups, and pick them up. I watch as one rolls away and I watch her struggle to stretch herself out to pull it back.  She grimaces, she groans.  Sometimes she squeezes her eyes shut, shakes her fists and howls.

I sit beside her. I tell her “Keep going.” I smile and I nod.  I say, “Ellie, you can do it!”

Sometimes she fails.  But sometimes she manages to lean herself forward so far that she is almost on her knees, and she hooks one determined finger around that errant cup and she pulls it back and picks it up.  And then I breathe a huge sigh, and I cheer her on. “You did it, honey! You got it!”

Grit.  I hope that I am giving her a sense that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to accomplish.  I hope that I am giving her, even at this tender age, the realization that she doesn’t need Nonni to do what she wants; she can do it all by herself.

I hope that I am giving her grit.


“I got it, Nonni!”


Once, long ago, I was invited by a friend to join a choir.  The choir was a group of people who sang Russian songs, under the direction of a wonderful old Russian man named Igor.

Igor was kind, gentle, sensitive, and very old fashioned Russian.  We were a group of very young students who were studying the Russian language in the late 1970’s. We loved the romance of the language, we loved the tender emotion of Pushkin and Tolstoy and Lermontov.

We loved to sing together.

During my time with this wonderful choir, I met a woman who was totally intriguing to me. She was half Russian Jew, half Korean.  She was beautiful, tall, smart, stylish in the most effortless way.  I fell just a little bit in love with her and her beautiful soprano voice.

Gradually, over some time, we became friends.  I found her to be incredibly sophisticated where I was a humble country bumpkin.   You see, Deb had attended a prestigious private girls college where I had graduated from a small inner city state school.  She had sailed the oceans on a Russian cruise ship, while I had considered a trip to Cape Cod to be exotic.

Deb was unique.  She was creative.  She read books that I had never heard of. Deb had grown up in New York.  I considered her to be the epitome of style and grace and late 70’s cool.

I was slightly star-struck when we first became good friends.

But soon we began to work together. Two young women helping new Russian immigrants to maneuver the American health care system. We worked as interpreters for these newly arrived families, helping them to make and attend doctor’s appointments, finding them apartments, enrolling them in English classes. Through our work at Jewish Family Services, Deb and I learned so much about life for new immigrants to the US, about Russian-American relations, about our health care system.

Most of all, though, we learned a lot about ourselves. We learned that we were caring and loving and kind. We learned that we had a talent for giving something of ourselves to people who needed a kind voice. We learned that we were friends, in every meaning of that word.

Deb became my very best friend.  She was the one who saw talents in me that I never knew were there. She encouraged me to sing, to explore, to reach out.  Deb was my sounding board when I went through a rough patch very early in my marriage. She stood by me without judgement.  She was my friend.

And it was Paul and I who, unintentionally, introduced Deb to her future husband. We had hosted a party at our apartment, and had hoped that maybe Deb would be drawn to one of our friends.  We knew that she was single and gorgeous and interesting and smart. We thought there was a good chance that she’d connect with one of our many interesting single men friends.

The only one we’d never considered, of course, was the friend who fell for Deb.  We couldn’t have predicted the dating, the wedding, the two beautiful girls, the 32 years of happily married life.

And Deb and I stayed close for so many of those years.  Our children knew each other.  We visited her California home once; she came back to the East Coast every year.

But time went on. The kids grew up.  My hair went gray and my chorus days waned. I never completely lost touch with my Deb, but our friendship faded and wilted and went into a dormant state.

I thought about her often. I thought of us singing Russian folk songs on the banks of the Charles River. I thought of her when I drove through Brookline, Mass.  I remembered our Sunday morning brunches, our dinners near the hospital, our flirtations with various young and handsome doctors.   I remembered telling her about my first pregnancy. I remembered meeting her little girls.

But time seemed to have moved us apart.  I no longer write letters in long hand on pretty stationary.  Deb doesn’t like to email.  I can’t seem to manage the time lapses on the cell phone; she is not on Facebook.

We drifted apart.


This past weekend, Deb and her husband Steve were visiting in our area.  They contacted us and we made a plan to have them come and stay with us for a couple of nights.

I was elated. I was anxious. I was so happy. I was afraid.

I’m not the young idealist that I was when Deb and I first met.  Now I am a chubby, middle aged, retired teacher with a slight chip on her shoulder.

Now I am a grandma.  What would we say to each other?

I waited all morning for Deb and Steve to arrive. I cleaned the house, plumped the pillows in the guest room, made some appetizers.  I worried.  I rearranged some photos, swept the front steps.  Worried a little bit more.

And then they were here.  I was out in the yard, my old Sadie doggie by my side, when I saw their car approaching.  They stopped in the driveway, and Deb stepped out of the car.

Her arms were open. She was smiling.  She was my Deb, my friend, my true heart’s companion. I folded myself into her embrace, almost sobbing with relief.  I heard her voice, so familiar and so dear, saying my name.  I inhaled the scent of her thick dark hair, and felt the cool softness of her familiar cheek against mine.

I was home. My friend was still my dearest friend.  We stepped back, looked into each other’s eyes.  We laughed and hugged each other tight once again.

Some things don’t change, no matter how much time has passed. The love of a true friend is one of those beautiful gifts.  I had the incredible pleasure of learning that Deb will be a grandmother in February of this year.  And I had the even greater pleasure of seeing my first grandchild encircled in Deb’s loving arms.


Deb and Ellie.

Life may go on, but the best parts of it remain the same.

Thank you, Deb and Steve, for coming to visit us this weekend!!!!!