Even though the dictionary defines grit as courage and strength, I never really liked that word. Much like "articulate" and "urban", I've heard it used in education too many times in ways that fit the intended definition, with the inclusion of a little more of an inferred connotation that reminded me of dirt or stray specks of dust that somehow get stuck in tiny spaces. Grit is undesirable because it gets in the way. It makes what’s otherwise smooth and perfect rough and ugly. And for those reasons, grit is not mutually exclusive when it comes to desirable qualities that define good character. People with grit don’t always fit well into every environment because they may rock the boat, negatively impact first impressions or, worst of all, take people out of their comfort zones.
The first time I heard the word in an attempt to mean something positive was when I began working in private schools. Admissions teams wanted kids with “grit”, but the ones who were described as such were usually cut from the same kind of cloth. It was the black or brown kids from the inner city, usually funneled into the admissions pool by some do-gooder scholarship program, and here were admissions people thinking that allowing this kid into the school would somehow better their lives. And many times it did, depending on who you asked. You see, grit is relative, much like the terms “rough” and “privilege”.
Taking a child out of rough environments and introducing them to more privileged versions of education has lots of benefits. Those same benefits are often met with lots of apprehension because, at the end of the day, there is no way to know what it all really means for them in the long run.
In circles that I’ve been a part of, grit meant that you’d been through some things. Maybe you lived in a small apartment with your 5 siblings. After school, your single mom relied on you to take care of your brothers and sisters while she worked the night shift at her second job. You did your homework while making sure that dinner was cooked, kids were fed, bathed, and put to bed, all while studying under a flashlight because, once again, the lights had been cut off. Grit meant that despite growing up in a neighborhood known for violence, you managed to complete an application and keep yourself out of trouble long enough for a chance to be removed from that environment. Tough situations? Of course. Grit-producing experiences? Nay. Nothing about having to take on way more responsibility than other kids your age, whether that’s caring for your family or taking your academic success into your own hands, sullies your ability to succeed academically. And that’s what the word “grit” implies. It says that “despite everything working against you, you made it.” And my questions are “How have you ‘made it’?” and “Made it… to where?”
“Grit” always had a negative connotation even though it was being used in an additive way. Grit meant that you came from a different world, but that your experience was still useful- even if the bottom line was making a student population look a bit more diverse by sprinkling in a few brown faces. The problem I had was what to do with “gritty” kids once they “made it” into pristine educational environments. OK, so you can appreciate that this kid has built character through not having it as easy as others, but how do you nurture that student as a person once they are transferred into your circle?
Grit never sat well with me because it was only seen as a good thing when it worked to a school’s advantage. It was great on the sports field because it meant that you were not afraid to get dirty. It was good in the classroom when it came to debate and the questioning of authority. It was questionable when it came to wearing clothes that were too baggy. It was mocked when presented in the form of speaking in a looser vernacular. Grit was to blame when the ways of home made their way to school and were too different from what was expected.
I don’t want to teach my children or students to develop grit. Yes, they need tenacity, strength, courage, perseverance, and tough skin, but grit? They can do without it. You don’t need to possess something that puts a positive spin on your difficulties in life. Grit, unlike culture, is a trend. It’s almost “cool” to be able to market yourself as someone who “defied the odds”. Whose odds have you defied? To who’s standard are you being held? If you had it hard, own that, but don’t claim grit.
It’s funny, most people who are labeled with grit would never claim it for themselves. That’s no coincidence. It’s not a positive thing. “Grit” actually means that you don’t belong since you’re the unconventional candidate. As a former educator and admissions committee member, “grit” lets me know that someone probably had to defend your admission to get you in. “Grit” has been adopted as a good thing, the same way “urban” has become a kinder way to say black. You don’t need grit, you need character, strength, and intelligence- just like everyone else. You also need the ability to see past your present circumstances and into your future potential and the ability to get up twice as many times as you’re knocked down. Defying the expectations of others by accessting additional assistance to be able to do those things does not indicate grit.
Coming from a difficult background and being exposed to something sweeter does not indicate grit. Don’t accept grit as a catchall phrase for being able to overcome. Simply call it what it is.