I know that resilience is one of the new keywords these days. It’s one of those wonderful concepts that allows you to use a word that has real meaning (versus, for example, a word such as “proactive” which should be erased from the vocabulary since what it means is “active”).

When educators use the word resilient, we’re using it the way contractors do: we’re referring to strength, durability, flexibility, and endurance. We see resilience as a virtue; you want something that will bend not break, you want something that will dent not shatter; you want something that will keep shining even when it’s not in the spotlight. For the last twenty years, we’ve been made nervous by kids who seem to fall apart when they’re confronted by any kind of challenge or, heaven forbid, even the faintest whiff of failure. By educating children to their strengths and simultaneously helping them avoid any encounter with their weaknesses, we’re faced with at best a bunch of prima donnas, and at worst a bunch of brats.

Let me explain.

Neither prima donnas nor brats are resilient; both dissolve in hot water.

Their favorite fairy tale is “The Princess and the Pea,” whereupon the protagonist discovers that she is truly special because she can sense anything that will cause her even the slightest potential discomfort from a great distance. Only by whining, grizzling, complaining, and demanding can the lead in this fairy tale command the stage. It is the lesser creatures who lie uncomplaining, perhaps even unaware that they should be upset by life’s imperfections.

George Carlin, stand-up comic and brilliant philosopher, talked about the fact that everybody seems to get sick these days despite the fact that we’re so healthy and chomping on organic vegetables. He pointed out that when he was growing up, he never got sick, which he attributes to the following: “I lived in Hell’s Kitchen, and we would go swimming in the river. Nobody got sick because we were swimming in raw sewage. We were tempered by raw sewage. I’ve never had a cold in my life.”

When the sewage hits the fan—as it does in everybody’s life—it’s good to know how to deal with it.

My schooling taught me resilience from the first hour I entered Oaks School #3 (“Where Small Acorns Grow Into Mighty Oaks”). My kindergarten teacher hated me. I’m not kidding or exaggerating. I was obviously not what she was looking for in a small child. She was a new teacher, and my eagerness to be in school might have somehow knocked her over. After all, my brother who is six years my senior had been in school for so long that I had been envying him for what seemed like forever. I was ready to be in school. While other kids cried when their mothers left them, I was ready for action. To her, I must have looked like some sort of kiddy commando. 

My kindergarten teacher shut me off like a light switch. She preferred the kids who were cuter and nicely dressed. Maybe her role model was Mary Poppins. She saw herself as giving us spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down. But for someone who didn’t see school as medicine, I remember being baffled by her assumption that learning was going to be more difficult and unsavory than otherwise. 

My mother was scared of her, too. I could sense that my recent immigrant mom felt she was judged and found wanting by this immaculately groomed young woman who had a habit of playing with the pearls around her neck. Mom wasn’t going to be all that much help.

So, what did I do? Did I internalize all the angst and eat my little heart out? You bet I did. For about two weeks. And then I decided that if I was going to have a good time in a school, the kind of good time my brother always seemed to have, then I was going to have to figure out how to make that happen by myself.

Something in me (probably the very thing that has allowed me to survive in an academic environment all these years) figured out that even if I couldn’t get her to like me, I could still learn things from her. I figured out in those very first days of school how to make the most of a situation. It’s a lesson that’s served me well.

Given half a chance, students will figure out how to ignore the discomfort or annoyances that they face.

Not every class is going to be perfect for every kid. Not every teacher is going to be a good match for every student. Not every school will be equally adept at educating every student. That’s no fairy tale. That’s the simple truth. But if we help kids to figure out their own ways of getting the best out of a situation instead of focusing on the worst of every circumstance, we’ll have a better shot at making the next generation be resilient.

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