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My Turn, Nancy Barkemeyer: Let’s address the gumption gap

Nancy Barkemeyer

West Rowan Middle School Principal Nancy Barkemeyer, center, lets A.J. Wight and Lucas Lemly read her handmade going-away card on the last day of school. Barkemeyer is the Rowan-Salisbury School System principal of the year.  Jon C. Lakey/Salisbury Post

West Rowan Middle School Principal Nancy Barkemeyer, center, lets A.J. Wight and Lucas Lemly read her handmade going-away card on the last day of school. Barkemeyer is the Rowan-Salisbury School System principal of the year. Jon C. Lakey/Salisbury Post

was waiting to pay for my lunch at a sandwich shop last week when a former student of mine came in to apply for a summer job. He gave me a hug, and then he stepped up to the counter to speak with the manager. I held my breath.

“I’m looking for work,” the kid said. “We’re not hiring,” came the reply. Conversation over. The young man turned and left without a word. So, that was that? The entire exchange took less than a minute.

I wanted to run after him, but decided that would just be more embarrassment for him. So instead, I stood there, glued to the floor, imagining all the possibilities that could have — should have — come into play. To begin with where was the letter of introduction? He should have brought one with him. Surely, someone had told him that. How about a follow-up question? Does the manager keep applications on file? Maybe the kid should have asked if there is a more convenient time to come back since mid day was so hectic. And, so on. At that point, just think of something.

That something, the missing piece of the failed interview, in business buzz is called “soft skills.” Those are the nebulous qualities like creativity, flexibility and problem-solving that are so critical. In education we call that critical ingredient “resilience.” It’s the ability to stick with a task and adapt well when facing adversity. But long ago, I learned from my grandmother that the something most needed is simply “gumption.” It’s that trait that whispers to you when it’s time to step up or to stare down the devil. Gumption can be summoned at a moment’s notice for a variety of reasons from resources you never knew you had. With an ounce of gumption, a kid tries out for a team he was cut from the year before. Gumption is often what drives a struggling student to earn a scholarship. Gumption is the push toward the deep end. Gumption is the determination to try one more time. Gumption can propel a failing businessman into a successful entrepreneur. Gumption makes the world go round and around again. Every day.

But defining gumption and cultivating it are two different things. Developing the willingness to soldier on requires practice and, here’s the hard part: It requires practice at failure without being defined by it. Losing is one thing, but being labeled a “loser” is quite another. Truth is, failure can be a positive force when it serves as a temporary obstacle after a fall. Getting back up requires that “something” again —gumption.

Or maybe not. A fairy godmother with a magic wand will serve just as well. Absent a fairy godmother, how about some well-meaning adults who will banish any and all obstacles on the road to happiness? Is it possible that in an effort to encourage kids to keep on trying, somewhere along the way, those same well-meaning adults started handing out praise and awards until merit badges became the norm and thus, meaningless? Does that happen? Everybody on the little league team gets a trophy whether he’s an all star or not. Add the practice of years of happy face stickers, and effortless extra credit in school, and voila! We well-meaning adults now have all “A” students who might not pass the final test. They may also be soft skills deficient with unrealistic assessments or expectations of their abilities and achievements. Faced with discouragement, those same kids lack the determination and, yes, the gumption, to problem-solve and come up with plan B.

Here’s the good news about soft skills, resilience and good old-fashioned gumption, though. Those qualities aren’t issued at birth. Rather, they can be developed and improved upon at any age according to a growing body of research from experts at the Harvard School of Education, Stanford University and the American Psychological Association. Stanford professor Jo Boaler has researched a small part of the forebrain called the thalamus that can actually grow after periods of the sort of cognitive stimulation involved in making mistakes. What is required, according to research is a mindset that accepts setbacks and moves on. And that may be the most important thing that schools can impart.

Ahh. So, this is where we well-meaning adults can stop holding our breath and step in. Let’s rewind the sandwich shop scene. This time I have the gumption to I follow the kid outside and assure him that when looking for a job, rejection is the norm. He’ll get over it when he develops a little resilience and that takes practice. Then we talk about the next step and gumption.

Nancy Barkemeyer was Rowan-Salisbury’s Principal of the Year for 2014-15 and recently retired.

My Turn columns should be 500-700 words. Please send to letters@salisburypost.com

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