Mind the Gap: Different Kinds of Toughness

An inner-city schoolteacher questions the fortitude of his supposedly toughest students.

Last week, my students entered our classroom and began work on the Do Now assignment that kicks off each class. Yet one student—we'll call him Elijah—walked in late, went straight to the windows and propped one open. I asked Elijah to close the window. After all, the temperature in the classroom was moderate, no other students had asked to open the window, and as a latecomer, Elijah's foremost responsibility was to catch up on the work he had already missed.

Elijah couldn't bear the disappointment of having to close the window, and he spent the rest of the period with his head on his desk, immune to my attempts to engage him. When I later asked him why he had put his head down, Elijah said, "Because you wouldn't let me open the window."

Welcome to my life.

I teach 11th graders, not 3rd graders, yet this immature breakdown confirmed a long-standing belief: There are different kinds of toughness, but too many of my students, especially the males, are deficient in the kind that matters most—the kind that empowers people to overcome adversity.

People I meet tend to presume my students are tough simply because they are teenagers that grew up in the South Bronx. With a narrow definition of toughness, these presumptions are accurate. Many of my students, especially the guys, are quick to raise their voice, escalate an argument, and resort to violence. Recently, one of my more mature students, a standout academically and behaviorally, tried to explain her peers’ thinking to me:

“Too many students try to be tough, but not in the way that is important now. They get into trouble, they’re in gangs, they’re doing drugs because they don’t want to be soft. It’s so much easier to get caught up in it here, where we’re living, the Bronx, you can call it the ghetto. They’re being influenced so young they’re not even aware they’re being influenced.” These students could efficiently and effectively beat someone up, but if I tell them to close the window or redo a homework assignment, they wilt like a flower. In this way, their supposed toughness doesn't run deep.

Then there’s another group of students, mostly female, who exhibit a broader type of toughness—perseverance—in spades. I’ll always remember the student of mine who would wake up to shower at 3:00 a.m., before her building ran out of hot water, and then go back to bed. I have a student now who routinely babysits her one-year-old niece for hours after school. The homework assignments she hands in are normally marked with the toddler’s scribble, but she possesses the second-highest average in her grade. Just today one of my students came to see me so that he could get caught up on an in-class assignment; he had had a hard time staying awake as gunshots had awoken him the previous night.

I’m sure I am unaware of innumerable other obstacles my students face on a daily basis. But what I do know is the best way my students can ensure not having to face as many or as severe distractions later in life is to learn how to deal with them in the here and now.

Just like parent involvement or reading comprehension, mental toughness needs to be modeled and taught in schools. On our recent trip to New Orleans, many of our students lost their appetites as soon as they confronted menus that offered up seemingly foreign foods. Sometimes students chose not to eat rather than try something new. My colleague encouraged them to introduce a new category into their thinking—the middle. Within days, some of the kids were eating venison stew and recasting their interpretation of experiences.

As many of the challenges my students face are legitimate and substantial, I sometimes feel guilty urging them to put their head down and bore through their obstacles. Earlier this week, one of my typically eager and well-behaved students was detached and angry. During class, he was focusing intently on his phone, and I couldn’t break its grip on him. After class, he told me that his cousin, a U.S. Marine, was in a firefight in Iraq, and he had been texting back and forth with his family members.

I could not relate to his situation, and I had no plans to argue that my lesson on the Cold War was more important than his cousin’s well-being. Yet I encouraged my student to turn his attention to what he could control within the four walls of our classroom and to be more upfront and forthright with me about what was bothering him outside of it.

I’ve learned over the last year-and-a-half that walking with a swagger or being quick to raise your voice is not demonstrative of true toughness. Beneath these exteriors is too frequently a lack of inner fortitude, an uncertainty and unknowingness of how to peacefully and effectively deal with adversity.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.

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