How To Teach Your Kids Grit

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By Jeremy Bangs

“Jason wants to fix the lake,” said his mother.

She was the front office secretary at Palmer Lake Elementary School where Jason was a third-grader and she said this to me when I stopped by the school to pick up something for another story I was working on.

She explained that Jason’s class was asked to write about a volunteer project they’d like to tackle. As I understand it, the question was posed as more of a writing exercise. The service aspect of the prompt was mostly an afterthought. No one expected his paper to launch a community-wide movement, probably because no one paid much attention to the lake.

Palmer Lake Elementary School is right in the middle of a small town called Palmer Lake in the Colorado foothills just north of the United States Air Force Academy. Palmer Lake itself is at the center of this town and an easy after school bike ride away for Jason and his classmates.

Palmer Lake had once been an integral part of the economic development of Colorado’s Front Range. General William J. Palmer moved to the area after the Civil War and purchased the surrounding land, made valuable by the fact that steam engines used Palmer Lake’s water to refill their boilers after climbing either side of the divide. Forced stops equated to captive audiences for commerce.

Historic photos and painting, which Jason had seen on field trips to the local museum or other points of interest, showed the lake in its heyday. One painting in particular showed a couple, sharply-dressed, cruise across the lake in a rowboat. In the background, a steam engine passed by and in the middle of the lake, a fountain. It looked like the sort of place worthy of giving rise to a town.

The Palmer Lake of Jason’s childhood looked nothing like the painting. There was no fountain. No one enjoyed his Palmer Lake on a lazy, sunny afternoon. You couldn’t even catch a fish in it. It was, as he pointed out in his class project, a lake in need of fixing.

By the time Jason’s mom had told me about Jason’s idea, she had already spread the word. In small communities like this, secretaries like Jason’s mom have contacts and information and are therefore the kind of power brokers mayors and school superintendents can only dream of becoming one day.

She had already spoken to a grant writer in town who had matched Jason’s idea to the recently established Great Outdoors Colorado Fund (GOCO) which put a portion of the states lottery proceeds toward outdoor recreation projects. She had also spoken to a local artist who painted Jason’s vision of a restored Palmer Lake and was selling prints to raise money for the project.

As I began writing about the lake, I realized how bad it was. The official at the Colorado Division of Wildlife who would ordinarily stock the lake with fish explained that so much sediment had collected on the lake bottom that there wasn’t enough oxygen to support aquatic life.

“If you could find a way to keep from sinking in the mud, you could probably wade across the thing,” he said.

Fixing the lake would be no small job. It would have to be drained, excavated with an eye toward creating fish habitat and refilling it. Teams of construction workers would have coordinate with wildlife biologists from the state to make all of this happen – cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching

Jason raised almost $400 for the project himself. He formed a Kids Committee of classmates and friends who raised more than $6,000. Jason worked the Palmer Lake lecture circuit. He got a local restaurant to have a fund-raising dinner that added another $1,000 to the effort. He spoke to the town council about the project. He gave the school board a presentation. Both pledged their support of the project which built momentum for the grant proposal in the works.

When the grant was won, the $150,000 project began. It seemed to take forever to drain the lake and for the muddy bottom to dry enough to support heavy equipment. But then, front-end loaders, excavators and scrapers crawled over the lake bottom like ants removing tons of mud and even some of the ash dumped from steam engines a hundred years earlier. Eventually, the bottom of what had been a very large mud puddle became a sculpture that made one think, “If I was a fish, I’d hang out over there. Or maybe there.” As the excavation continued, the springs that originally created the lake emerged and went to work filling it.

The following year, Palmer Lake was alive again. A fountain threw a stream or water from the center of the lake and families were fishing from its shores. A dock was built from assorted paddle craft were launched or where people could simply dangle their feet over the water.

All of this happened because a third-grader wondered how it could be done and his parents met him halfway. They connected him with people in the community that did the same. On and on it went until an extraordinary vision was realized by an entire community.

I wanted to tell you this story as we consider the traits of courage, fortitude and grit because I wanted to ask this question: How many of us, as parents, would have met Jason half way on this? I like to think I would have, but I can think of many smaller projects with my own third-grader that I did not. We want them to stay the course with chores, homework, soccer practice and piano lessons. But how many times do we stand in the way of their bigger dreams – the ones that take real work and could weave fortitude into their makeup as tightly as any of their other core beliefs?

The reconstruction of Palmer Lake in the mid to late-90s is a grand, public example of something that plays out for parents all the time. Kids dream. Sometimes, their dreams are impractical. But when they’re not, we ought to think about meeting them halfway. If you’ve done something like this, or you’re starting out on a project, let us know so we can learn, support and celebrate it with you.

Steven Markel