Pondering Resilience

“Fostering resilience in children requires family environments that are caring and structured, hold high expectations for children’s behavior, and encourage participation in the life of the family.”

Sounds like social science boilerplate, doesn’t it?  What is resilience anyway?

But let’s take a step back from cynicism and think about what this sentence really means.  Because I believe “resilience” is at the heart of volunteer, non-profit altruism.  It’s at the heart, too, of what the scores of literacy programs are really after when they try to improve literacy in the home, especially among poor-income or at risk children, homes prone to social pathology.

Ask anyone connected with a literacy program and they will tell you anecdotes about kids who can’t read.  Kids who come to school unable to read – with handicaps and hurdles that make learning to read harder.  Parents unable to read.  Homes without books.

One of the problems with many well meaning and enthusiastic literacy programs is that they are very good at finding books and making them available.  The problem is that in many of these homes, they don’t know what to do with the books.  Books themselves are not hard to find.  Public libraries still function.  What’s missing in these homes is a culture of literacy, a culture of reading.  No books on the shelves means reading is not a normal activity or option.  Children in such homes do not see reading modeled as a leisure or entertainment activity.  It is just a school thing.  Alien.  Work.  Not fun.  Not family.

Literacy advocates know they face an uphill battle.  You can try to help a child to read at school.  You can expose him to a variety of books.  You can inundate her with encouragement and extra attention.  But when he goes home, the books he brings home are an isolated, private possession.  They are not something shared or respected or appreciated in the home at large.

For such children, learning to read is hard.  It is easy to give up.  And school is harder.  It is easy to give up there, too.  More importantly, the lesson of giving up is re-inforced.  This is where a social science buzzword like resilience crops up.  Resilience is the quality of being able to take a social or socioeconomic punch or challenge, and find a way to bounce back and seek a new solution.  The few children who do emerge from such environments have this magic quality.  Where do they find it?  Are they born with it?  Is it luck?

Maybe.  But the academicese above suggests that it’s more complicated than that.  Children learn qualities of perseverance and problem-solving when they have an environment that challenges and encourages and supports and rewards them.  That environment cannot just come from school.  Teachers and coaches can provide inspiration.  Some extraordinary teachers and coaches can prove uniquely influential.  But for the vast majority of resilient children, you need more.  You need standards and expectations.  You need support and encouragement and reward.  And the institution that provides that best is the family.

Illiterate families represent a generational chain of illiteracy.  How can you break that chain?

Believe it or not, there is a literacy program that actually trains the family.  That teaches a family how to be literate together.  That models high standards and expectations.  That discovers and teaches the joy and rewards and love of a good children’s novel – of stories and books and literacy.

A tall and grandiose claim, I am sure.  But proven and effective.  And beloved.

Such claims are clear and sought after far outside the realms of literacy programs.  Consider these examples:

The Wire

Many people consider HBO’s stark series, The Wire, to be one of the finest (if not the finest) dramas in television history.  It presents the worlds of urban Baltimore – the world of the drug-slingers and corner boys, and the alternate world of the municipal professionals – the police.  (Later seasons also present the worlds of the Baltimore stevedores, City Hall, the schools, and even The Baltimore Sun.)  The show’s strength is presenting three-dimensional characters on both sides of the line of legality.  Cops and detectives you both admire and revile – but with whom you can identify.  And – believe it or not – drug dealing youth with whom you can empathize – as some of them struggle to get out of “the game” (as they call it in the parlance of the street and the show).  This is particularly evident in Season 4, which takes as its centerpiece four 8th-grade boys, and follows their fortunes as they encounter the temptations and limitations and opportunities their neighborhood presents.  The boys are all different.  Three of them are raised by their mothers with no father present.  One has no parents at all – or no effective parents as they are drug addicts who actually steal anything he brings home!  This is a stark world.  And yet each of these personalities has strengths and personal qualities that suggest he might be able to weather this challenging environment.  At one point, the loneliest boy, Dukie (the one with the drug addict parents) is mentored by a compassionate teacher.  Later, Dukie tries to fit in at a local boxing parlor, started up by an ex-drug dealer trying to offer a clean way out for neighborhood youth.  Dukie is not much of a boxer, and he speaks with Cutty (the boxing proprietor) about it.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the show’s 70 odd episodes, Dukie looks out across the city and notes that escaping from the city – from the pathological temptations and restrictions of his environment – seems so hard and far away.  Dukie has never even left his neighborhood (West Baltimore) – let alone the city.  “The world is bigger than (West Baltimore),” advises Cutty.  But, “How do you get from here to the rest of the world?” asks Dukie.   And Cutty has no answers.

It is the easiest thing in the world for someone not from that environment to imagine that leaving that environment is easy.  There are so many opportunities – from school and jobs to college.  So many well meaning programs and helpmeets.  It is the strength of The Wire to present sympathetic characters who help you realize how hard it really is.  For Dukie, a smart, sensitive boy with loads of potential who has no business in “the game,” anything should be possible.  In reality, he can’t even imagine how to leave his neighborhood.  He is impoverished in so many ways, starting with poverty of the imagination.  He starts out with deficits (family deficits), he is blessed with two mentors, and yet his way out is anything but assured.  I won’t tell you what happens to Dukie, but I call attention to his plight – his eager, ignorant yearning and curiosity – to emphasize what he needs.  All the stuff in that social science sentence – standards, expectations, rewards – and most of all a consistent, nurturing environment to apply and nurture and husband those opportunities.  Neither of his mentors can supply that.  It is the stark truth of The Wire to show how us how severely the qualities of resilience are tested in West Baltimore.  And how important resilience is – if it can be nurtured.  If impoverished families can be taught how to nurture it.


A recent film – a small independent film about baseball of all things – beautifully renders the simple importance of having a support network.  The film is called Sugar, and it presents a young Dominican baseball player (the film’s namesake) who hopes to make it to the major leagues.  When we first meet young Sugar, he is one of dozens of fellow young Dominicans, trying to be signed by a major league baseball team.  He is talented.  He is confident.  He has a loving family.  He gets his big break when is invited to a major league training camp.  Where reality sets in.  The first day, he discovers he is one of dozens of pitchers vying for a professional job.  Back home in the Dominican Republic, he was one of the best of a talented group of players.  Here in the States, he is one of 75 talented pitchers, vying for 50 professional spots on a major league team’s rosters.  As the MLB pitching coach says to them all, “Do the numbers.”  This is the point where anything can happen for young Sugar.  Maybe he’s the best of the lot and will rise to the top no matter what.  Maybe he’s just a run of the mill talent, like everyone else, and success or failure will depend on heart or will or even luck.  Or maybe he really is talented, but success depends on something more.  It is the strength of this film that it does not present a familiar or traditional story arc.  We don’t know whether Sugar will succeed or fail.  (And I’m not going to tell you whether he makes it.)  In a large sense, whether he makes it or not is not even the point of the film.  Rather, the film reminds us (or teaches us) that everyone is different, and that everyone will face a series of challenges or hurdles.  It is how we face those challenges and hurdles that defines us.  Sugar, really, is a film about resilience.

I will tell you that Sugar does get assigned to Class A ball in Iowa.  This is the low minor leagues, but it is a step on the ladder.  For a Dominican baseball player, with no English, to play in Middle America is to start out as a professional as an alien – virtually alone.  There are other young players, many of them Latin American, similarly lonely.  And Sugar even lives in the home of an American host family who regularly husband the careers of young players like Sugar.    I won’t say whether this devout Christian family make the difference for Sugar.  I will say that their presence reminds us that success or failure – or developing that crucial quality of resilience (as the social science mantra instructs us) – can often depend on having support networks – at home, and in alien territory.  Most personalities won’t manage the initial loss of confidence from seeing 75 similarly talented pitchers, or the injury to leg or arm, or the patient, trial-and-error challenge of learning a new pitch, few personalities can manage any of that – alone.  They need support networks to help them along.  Sugar has them.  But they don’t define success or failure either.  They merely enable it.

You might wonder if literature makes a difference for young Sugar.  (Imagine how many ballplayers from the Dominican bring books with them in their duffel bags.)  But I will tell you that a biography of the great Puerto Rican ballplayer, Roberto Clemente, does play a role in offering Sugar support, friendship, inspiration, and even enables him to find a kindred spirit.  But for now let’s acknowledge that a story ostensibly about baseball, while really a story about an alien immigrant succeeding or failing, is also a useful reminder of the environmental circumstances necessary to developing resilience.

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor has recently been confirmed as the first Latino Supreme Court Justice in our nation’s history.  And during the weeks of the nomination and confirmation process, we as a nation got to meet Sonia Sotomayor and learn of her background.  How she grew up in a Bronx housing project.  And managed to emerge as a serious academic student, bent on achieving, and did in fact achieve.  Graduating not only from high school, but from Princeton and then Yale Law School.  She went on to become a U.S. District Court judge and now of course a Supreme Court Justice.  An American success story – an immigrant success story – if we’ve ever heard one.

Sonia Sotomayor had some advantages.  Her mother stressed learning and education.  She bought Sonia a copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica when she was in grade school.  (Many homes in America’s disadvantaged communities contain no books.  Just getting books into the homes is a hurdle, but it is not the main hurdle.  Getting families to know what to do w/ the books is the most important hurdle.  Enabling them to use and capitalize on and exploit the books – to profit from them – that’s the main thing.)  But Sonia had many disadvantages, too.  Her father did not speak English when she was born.   She was diagnosed with diabetes when she was seven.  Her father died the next year.  She lived in three different Bronx housing projects growing up.  Her mother moved at least once to try to live somewhere safer.  Sonia grew up during the years of the crack epidemic when crime spiked in New York and the nation at large.

Sonia’s mother must have done plenty of things right.  Her brother, too, became a doctor and teaches at the college level.  But Sonia Sotomayor is a living, breathing, walking example of resilience.  Whatever advantage she gained from her mother’s guidance and encouragement and firmness, Sonia still had to weather the challenges of her environment, the emotional deficit in her family, and the daily, hourly distraction of managing her illness.  How easy might if have been for her to give up or give in?

Sonia Sotomayor is also a living, breathing, walking example of the power of literature to inspire, to provide models and goals, to instill and re-inforce worthy, constructive, resilient qualities.  She has explained how she was inspired in grade school by reading Nancy Drew novels.  You don’t find that kind of will and determination just from reading the Encylopedia Brittanica.

And pondering the notion of resilience for one more moment, just think – do you think it got any easier for Sonia Sotomayor when she was at Princeton, or Yale, or on the bench of the U.S. District Court?  She went to Princeton shortly after it went co-ed, when fewer than 20% of students were women.  How many of them do you think were Latino?  It takes reserves of internal strength, of fortitude and perseverance, of determination and, say it, resilience, to weather the challenges and hurdles of confidence and loneliness in an environment like that.  I am sure it was no different at Yale Law School, especially when affirmative action policies instantly attached a stigma to all minorities at institutions of higher learning.

Sonia Sotomayor has resilience in spades.  How did she get it?  Where does it come from?

I won’t over-sell the point by claiming it comes from books.  Surely it comes from the individual first.  But in most cases it must be nurtured, fostered, re-inforced.  And thus it comes from families.  But families only provide the environment of support.  Sonia Sotomayor had a mother who guided and inspired her with books, and I am sure she built up and amplified her reserves reading Nancy Drew – and the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  Developing resilience is a multi-stage phenomenon.

Now return for a moment to that academic paragraph at the top of this piece, the one about how to build resilience.  Developing emotional strength requires families.  Families are the lynchpin.  Many of us, reading about children, or literacy, or social problems quail when the solution becomes ‘families.’  Families are messy and complicated.  So much simpler if we can just focus on the children as individuals.  But that is not the way it works in reality.  Schools cannot do it alone.  Families are the organic solution.

Families build emotional strength in children by doing things together.  Leisure activities, like watching a movie – together.  Work activities, like doing the chores – together.  Play activities, like a game of touch football – together.  That’s right, families that work together, families that play together, those are the families that build qualities like resilience in their children.  And families that read together.

President Obama has repeatedly encouraged American families – especially families at risk – “to turn off the television, put away the video games, and read together.”  It is a noble and worthy goal.  It is a goal, if successful, that can surely foster and build reserves of resilience in some of those homes.  But it is a goal impossible for those families to achieve without know how, without experience, without a program.  No matter how well meaning, you can’t just throw books at these families and tell them to read.  Families, too, need support.

The One School, One Book program will enable these families to succeed by showing them how to read together, by instructing them how to read aloud, and by providing support and encouragement and motivation by reading together – as one community.  One School, One Book aims to show Dukie the other side of Baltimore – and the rest of the world.  It aims to let the Dominican immigrant be inspired by the life of the departed Roberto Clemente when he is all alone and in desperate need of resilience.  It aims to put modern day Nancy Drew exemplars in the hands of all of America’s elementary school youth so they, too, can curry the qualities that allowed Sonia Sotomayor to learn and achieve her way out of the Bronx housing projects all the way to the Supreme Court.

Reading together, as a family, as a school, as a community, can breed far more than literacy gains.  It is one way to breed that elusive quality – resilience.

(Find out more – find out how – at readtothem.org.)

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