When we started hiking our breath hung in the frosty air and our heavily layered clothes made us look like nine walking sausages. Two hours later we were half way up the mountain and more resembled peeled bananas, seated on scattered boulders along a tumbling mountain brook. When Sky told me that morning we were taking our six UrbanTrekker teens on a nine mile hike with over a 2600 foot elevation gain I immediately had my doubts. Wilted by the noon sun streaming through the leafless trees, our sweaty peeled bananas were looking pretty tired, including the one with gray hair.
While we boiled additional drinking water and devoured some trail mix, I began to plan for stragglers. From our perch, the steepest part of the trail was now in view and way, way up there, the mountain top peaked out, looking every step more like Everest to our climbing team.
“Well, time for some grit.” I thought. In the parlance of social scientists grit has become a popular term in discussing urban youth. I don’t object to it, it definitely captures a quality all of us need to succeed – the ability to face challenges and overcome them in order to achieve higher goals. The trouble with the term is it’s used so clinically, broad and impersonal.
But when you know the child who lacks grit it’s personal. It’s a look in their eyes, a tone in their voice, and above all a story filled with difficult circumstances and missing people who’ve left dry places in their hearts where grit ought to spring forth.
I felt blessed by the six teens with us, they were a great mix of personalities and strengths. But hearing their stories on the drive down I knew their springs of grit were pretty dry. Many had a guardian or parent who was not able to work and family finances were very difficult, bordering on homelessness. None of them had fathers in their lives, in fact, in some cases the father’s influence had been negative, not neutral. Even small things that fill the spring were missing. None of them had ever been read to as children at home. It made me sad, like childhood had been missed somehow.
One girl, Rhonda, asked me, “I believe in God, but if He’s real, why does He allow bad things to happen, and why do I have to forgive?”
It troubled me. These were great kids who were loved by their family, but simply didn’t have enough rain to renew the sources we all need for success. When you receive and read this letter, I know you feel troubled too. What can we do to help these kids not be thirsty? Keep walking.
We rousted the team up and began the long series of steep switchbacks that had to be conquered from here to the top. The team began to spread out more, the rocks got bigger, the trail steeper. Vultures weren’t circling yet, but the ‘straggle’ was about to begin.
“I can’t go on, I’m sick,” a clearly exhausted Quayonna panted. I was impressed she had made it this far. The whole team had been encouraging her over and over, and waited patiently. But the sun was getting low and we weren’t even at the top yet. If this was a movie, this was the point where the music goes to a minor key and the camera pans from tense face to tense face.
“Ok, you all head on, and I’ll go with Quayonna.” I said. I’d been waiting for this moment. Reluctantly they did, except Rhonda. She acted like she was struggling too, but it was clear to me Rhonda wanted to be there to help Quayonna. That’s grit. It was a spring of water that helped my thirsty spirit too.
I love to be compassionate with kids, it feels good. But now was a time for some tough love. Quayonna hadn’t come all this way to stop here. She was going to conquer this mountain if we had to carry her.
“I can’t go on!” “Yes you can.” Step. Step. “I’m nauseous.” “Ok. We’ll rest, but we aren’t turning around.” Step. Step. “I’ve got cramps!” We rubbed them out and kept walking. The whole way Rhonda encouraged her. Small drips of grit.
Then we came to a ravine with a steep, wet stone ramp. There was no way we were getting up it, I could barely make it. Then we got some heavenly intervention. Two strong hikers appeared, strangers (if you’re watching the movie, cue the angelic music!) and made a chain and reached out their hands just enough, that together, all three of us could scramble up. And then there it was, the top! We could hear the voices of our team calling out congratulations to Quayonna. There were hugs and laughter and joy. There was teamwork, sacrifice, struggle, courage, perseverance, and finally, victory. A success earned, not given, fought for and won. All driven home by an incomparable view for fifty miles in every direction. This was a mountain top experience in every sense of the expression. This was true grit.
With the mountain conquered, we ate one of the most satisfying lunches I can remember (PB&J!). Before leaving our hard earned perch, Sky had us all take 15 minutes in silence to reflect on what were the mountains in our life. As much as the kids loved so many aspects of the trek, this reflection, validated by their victory, was a highlight. They shared powerful reflections as a team of perseverance, patience, struggle and strength. They had new grit!
I was grateful for Rhonda’s honest question on the drive down. Her life was full of bad things. Nothing I said was as impactful as walking up that difficult trail with her and her friend, together, and standing on that mountain top. It’s the meaning of living water.
It’s Christmas, friend, a good place to stop and look at our year long trek. I’m asking you to walk with Quayonna and Rhonda and her friends, with all 600 kids UrbanPromise will love and challenge and encourage this year. Show your true grit, take a look at our response card, push yourself an extra step even if you’re a little tired. Most of us have been filled up pretty well. Together we can give these kids grit, and together we can conquer our mountains and drink in the view.
Thank you for allowing us to keep walking.