When people talk about poverty, it’s usually in reference to money, but poverty can encompass all aspects of life.
It’s probably safe to say that growing up, most of us did not experience the things that 19 year old Derry Groce has faced.
“My family all sold drugs and they all went to prison and stuff, and my dad had left the house and my mom was the only one raising us. All I saw was violence on the street—people getting shot, people robbing," Groce says.
"Through middle school it was kind of rough. I didn’t really pay attention to class and stuff like that. Eighth grade year when my friend Keith Wilson died and I started getting in trouble in school," Groce says. "Luckily, I graduated the eighth grade, but entering high school my ninth grade year I wasn’t doing too good. I didn’t feel like school was for me, and I was thinking the streets was better cause it had more opportunities out in the streets for me. But then I had to repeat the ninth grade two times, because I was missing so much school."
Following his tenth grade year, he had switched schools from Community High School to Travis Academy. "And as I was going there, my sister, Derrineisha Griffin got diagnosed with cancer. It started messing with my mind and started affecting me in school. Later that year in 2012 when school got out, June 10 of 2012 she had passed away from cancer," Groce says. "And when she died it had motive me to live my life with a purpose, because she couldn’t finish school and therefore I saw that I needed to finish school and do the right things so that I could be successful and help out my family."
Derry Groce says he’ll graduate from Hope Christian Academy in Milwaukee next month.
So, what does it take for someone who has experienced so much sadness and violence to say, 'I can do better'? According to Henry Tyson, the answer is grit.
“We define grit as where perseverance meets passion,” Tyson, superintendent of St. Marcus Lutheran School on the city’s north side, says.
He says this school year staff introduced grit as a character trait by showing students a video of former British Olympic runner Derek Redmond. He pulled his hamstring during the Barcelona games, but refused to leave the track until he crossed the finish line. Not surprisingly, Redmond finished in a distant last place. Tyson says students can learn grit.
“Regardless as to whether or not you can read very well or do math very well, which is what everybody is obsessed with," Tyson says. "The real question is are you passionate are you passionate about something in life? Do you have a burning passion to achieve or accomplish something? And then that’s followed up by do you have the ability to persevere whatever obstacles come your way?"
Tyson says the obstacles facing children living in poverty can strike their core.
“Moving house constantly, not having enough food on the table," Tyson says. "We have a seventh grader right now who just watched her uncle die in the street because of a bullet."
Tyson says part of his mission is to instill in kids a sense of their value and ability to be more than they might see on a daily basis.
While it is important for students to persevere, putting the earnest on them alone is unjust, according to Demond Means, superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville School District and co-chair of the SDC’s Youth Poverty Task Force.
“So often, leaders and politicians want to talk about the grit that the families that are already in the situation have to demonstrate," Means says. "Well show me some grit in Madison legislators when it’s time to show that you care about the people. Show me grit when it’s time to allocate proper resources to public schools. Show me the grit when it’s time to help families who are really struggling. The grit situation goes both ways."
Means says he can think of a number of specific ways, elected leaders could help struggling men, their families and children.
“Let’s have conversations about providing transportation to where the jobs are for people who live in situations where transportation isn’t readily available," Means says. "Let’s have conversations about the toxic stress that students who live in high concentrated poverty areas deal with on an everyday basis. And maybe that’s the why reason why schools in high concentrated poverty areas aren’t doing well."
Means wants the state to reallocate resources.
“If we know that we’re spending a half million dollars a day in the pursuit of incarcerating African American men from Milwaukee County in the state of Wisconsin, what would we be able to do if a third of that money was being put back into trying to prevent the next generation of young men going to jail?," Means says. "What could we look like?”
Senior Derry Groce says he continues mustering personal grit.
“No matter what situation you in or how hard the circumstances is, you can always overcome it and achieve greatness out your life,” Groce says.
Groce says his next stop after graduation will be MATC where he plans to study either business or something in the health care field.