Angels in Shipwrecks - Kaitlin Murphy-Knudsen
Angels in Shipwrecks: Place, Politic and Spirit in Modern Life

Heat and the Metrics of Hope

Hazy Manhattan Skyline : Hazy Manhattan Skyline;Credit:

In cities, first waves of summer heat bring headlines that do not go well with news about sprinkler-jumping, barbecues and pool openings. This Memorial Day weekend, they went like this:

There are more, as there are every year, when the heat pushes more to the surface than sweat, insisting that we see things that make us uncomfortable.

But Gallup may have delivered a cool breeze. Usually a forum for “Daily News, Polls, Public Opinion on Government, Politics, Economics and Management,” the gold standard in polling is venturing into the slippery, now measurable metrics of hope.

They are finding there may be more to that hopey-changey thing than Sarah Palin would like to admit.

Recently at a conference I heard former teacher and Gallup representative Jason Milton share results of a yearly survey of high school students.

“Hope is a more robust predictor of first-year college success than the SAT, ACT and GPA,” he said.

Hold on. I know plenty of students who were filled with confidence and hope until they got to college and saw how far behind they were in needed skills. I know others who complained about unfair workloads only to return later to thank their teachers for being so tough, for preparing them for challenges that had pushed some of their peers to the breaking point in college.

Yet according to Gallup’s research, the way students feel about where they are going is the greatest indicator of how successful they will be the next year in college.

Gallup broke out hope into the presence of three beliefs among the high school students surveyed:

1.   Belief they would graduate
2.   Belief they would get a job after college
3.   Belief they could handle problems that came their way.

So if hope is most telling, why aren’t college applications giving it greater weight in the college applications process?  Or any weight at all? What does this mean for city leaders who aim to improve public education and drive down crime in their cities?

Would the effort spent on schoolwork and SAT prep be better spent instilling a sense of hope?

Not quite. First, Gallup’s research does not include the young people who would not have made it to the first year of college to be re-assessed. Second, low achievement levels lead to a loss of hope and a higher likelihood of participating in violence.

Education leader James Shelton III was asked at the same conference to explain the link between low achievement and violence.

“Kids understand when the gap between their reality and their dreams is getting wider,” he said.

So why do the metrics of hope count more than metrics of achievement?

This is not a chicken or egg question, and we don’t need to pit the achievement-driven folks against the touchy-feelies to answer it. There is a missing string that connects the two. It appears thin, almost invisible in our discourse, approach to living, and the ways we teach children.

It is grit, the persistence we don’t tend to learn until the first time we are knocked on our butts with a truly stubborn challenge.

I've heard this before, you may think. Work hard, yada yada yada. I do say this to kids!

Except most of the time you don’t mean it.

•   When was the last time you failed and your first reaction was not shame or embarrassment, but 
      respect for your mistakes?

•   When was the last time you saw (and repeated or re-tweeted) an anchor or reporter playing the
      “gotcha” game with a public official, finding all kinds of ways to squeeze them into saying words
      like “apologize,” “regret,” or admit they “would have done things differently?”

•   When was the last time your kid screwed up and you were grateful? “Wahoo, she failed! Now
      she’s really going to grow!”

Ok, maybe failure and mistakes aren’t supposed to feel good. But they should feel like a natural part of the learning process.

But barring a few pithy slogans from Thomas Edison and the like, about 1,000 wrong ways to invent a light bulb or 99% perspiration vs. 1% inspiration, we rarely give the grit factor more than lip service.

Instead, we treat our own mistakes as hot tamales to get rid of before they burn us or our reputations. As a result, many of our kids wouldn’t know the value of a good screw-up if it hit them in the face.

My Unscientific Corollary

I grew up in a big family, and holidays often included competitive basketball in which my older sister was the epitome of grit. My father nicknamed her “the gnat” for her ability to persist.

She was relentless, virtually coating you and your limbs with her presence and leaving you no room to dribble, shoot or throw the ball. It didn’t matter if you were taller, stronger, or better at shooting and passing than she was. If she was on you, you weren’t going anywhere.

The grit we need sits squarely in the middle of hope and achievement. Achievement depends on grit to exist, and grit depends on hope to exist.

                                             HOPE > GRIT > ACHIEVEMENT > HOPE

We’re not supposed to get it right the first time, and the only thing working for us when that happens is luck.

Why does it matter, and what can we do?

Yesterday I was driving, with my mind on the weekend’s headlines, heat and the hope factor. Rickie Lee Jones came on the radio and sang her song Wild Girl, released in 1979. Drawn in by the full-on sadness and love in one voice, I pulled over to listen.

It was a tribute to her daughter, and Jones sang of “all the things a child learns/ On their way from hope to here,/ The innocence, the fury, the racism/ Rage and fear…/ You can live your life with regret/ About the things you think you did wrong,…/ Or you can be grateful/ When you open your eyes,/ The story you write, you live.”

We can create better “here’s” for children to grow into. Yes, we have to keep our eye on the ball. Teenagers who can't read are more likely to become part of the ugly headlines that break our hearts. Though I haven't come anywhere close to living their struggles, my work with students in this situation says there is no way Gallup’s results are a signal to ease up on a tough academic focus.

But the results are a call to better understand the delicate balance of variables in the HOPE > GRIT > ACHIEVEMENT corollary in kids’ lives. We can start with our own lives by giving mistakes and failure the room they have earned for showing us who we want to be, and how to get there.

As we do, we will create the “here’s” that stay saturated in hope, places where failure does not lead to hopelessness but fuels us toward higher achievements, quiet streets, and summers that blow breezes into deep pains and hopeful lives.

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