Sat | May 28, 2016

A story of grit: two girls and blind mother

Published:Sunday | October 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Kelliciann McLean (left) and Niomi Brown.

Angela Lee Duckworth, at the University of Pennsylvania, studies intangible concepts such as self-control and grit to determine how they might predict both academic and professional success.

Lee Duckworth, in TED talks Education, made a presentation on 'The Key to Success? Grit'.

She related that when she was teaching, she realised IQ was not the only difference between her best and worst students. Some with the highest IQs were not doing so well, and some with lower IQs were doing better. She realised that there was the need to understand about learning from a motivational and psychological perspective.

Duckworth needed to research whether doing well in school and life depended on much more than the ability to learn easily and quickly. She then left teaching to pursue postgraduate work, studying which students and professionals would be successful, and why, in varying contexts.

This is what Duckworth found the predictor of success turned out to be - grit. "Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina, sticking with your future, day in, day out, for years and working really hard to make that a future a reality. Grit is living life like it is a marathon, not a sprint."

She found that this matters especially for children at risk for dropping out. Talent, she says, does not make you gritty. The best idea she heard about building grit is called 'Growth Mindset'. This was from Dr Carol Dweck of Stanford University.

Growth Mindset says that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. Dr Dweck has shown that when students read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they are more likely to persevere when they fail because they do not believe that failure is a permanent condition.

This is a story of grit.

Kelliciann McLean, 17, and her sister, Niomi Brown, 18, are both members of the Tarrant High School lower sixth form. Their mother is Pauline Smith, who has six children with six different fathers. The girls are the youngest of the six children. Pauline, their mother, became blind while she was attending Norman Manley High School. She did not finish high school. She became pregnant at age 16 with her first child.

Pauline's mother did not take her vision impairment seriously, and later when Pauline was properly diagnosed, she was deemed to have retinitis pigmentosa. She was blind.

The sisters have different experiences with their fathers. Niomi's father is the most supportive, while Kelliciann describes her father as a 'sperm donor'. Life has not been easy for these girls. However, they do not complain about the only life that they have known. They speak with pride about their mother, who, in spite of her disability, has been their guide and has taught them to have grit.

Both girls attended St Jude's Primary School where Niomi was ahead of Kelliciann, as she was the older sibling. Their mother had no money for them to do GSAT extra lessons when so many other of their classmates where being prepared in this way for GSAT. It was financially difficult for them.


Niomi danced for St Jude's Primary and so was given the privilege of selling sweets at the school so that she could pay for her graduation expenses. Kelliciann says she believes her mother still owes money to the school for her graduation fees.

The sisters sat GSAT a year after each other. Niomi passed for Tarrant High, and said that this was a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted her to be placed in a more traditional high. After all, she said, throughout primary school, she had always been in the top classes. When she came to Tarrant and performed well, some teachers wondered why she was at Tarrant. Because of her good academic performance in grade seven, she was awarded a scholarship from M&M Company to cover her expenses for school for grade eight.

Niomi continues to dance for the school. Both girls are proud of the fact that they sat CXC home management: Niomi in grade 10, and Kelliciann in grade nine. Both scored grade two.

How did they manage at school financially? The girls were registered with the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) and were able to get lunch. Their mother, a member of the Jamaica Society for the Blind and the Council for Persons with Disability, went to the council to get assistance to pay the girls' fees. The council provided assistance for a percentage of the school fees. Otherwise, the girls came to school without money.

They also had to face the mockery that some students made of their mother's blindness when she came to school. It was hurtful for them when the children made fun of their mother. This did not stop them from feeling proud of their mother's strong spirit. They were seeing grit in action.

The sisters both sat the CSEC examinations: Niomi passed six subjects and Kelliciann passed seven. Both girls had already passed home management before. In addition, Kelliciann, who wants to be a dietician or a pastry chef, passed the NTVET food preparation Level 1 examination and is now waiting on her results for Level 2.

Both girls tell the story of Ronald Townsend, a blind man who worked with the Ministry of Labour but who is now retired. He would help them with money for stationery and other things and paid their fees to sit home management at CXC.


Niomi's ambition is to attend Mico and become a teacher. She realised, however, that she could not afford the fees. This made her discouraged. While preparing to do her CSEC examinations, Niomi discovered in February of that year that she was pregnant. She hid this from everyone.

Mom, on knowing, was disappointed because she had great hopes for Niomi and Kelliciann. She wanted better for them. She wanted them to break the pattern in the family. The girls pointed out that one of their older sisters, who gives some support to Kelliciann, is an exotic dancer. The girls are aware of the dangers of that lifestyle and are clear that they will not be following that path. Their sister, however, encourages them to make better of themselves.

Then there is a brother who is in prison, the result of following a life of crime. He also encourages them to do better for themselves. He wants them to do well so they can help their mother.

Niomi's mother encouraged her not to give up preparing for her examinations when she found out she was pregnant. She found it difficult to complete her SBAs, but she persevered and was able to do so. The school did not know that she was pregnant, apart from her home economics teachers, whom she describes as being her second mothers. They figured it out but said nothing about it until later on.

Niomi did her examinations, participated in graduation and even danced while being pregnant. She had her baby in November 2012. At the start of this school year, her teachers encouraged her to apply for sixth form and complete her education. They encouraged her not to give up. They were helping her to develop grit.

Being in sixth form is a challenge for both sisters, as PATH, a welfare programme, does not provide lunches for students at that level. Their mother has applied for a school grant from PATH to help with the school fees. She is still awaiting the response to her application. The girls say there are many days when they do not eat. One of their brothers sometimes gives their mother some money.

Niomi says that she is disappointed to be at the same grade level as Kelliciann. She, however, uses her son, Jaden, as a motivation to excel in her studies so that she can provide a better future for him.


This is what Niomi says:

"Our mother has been our greatest influence. She shared her experience with us and told us to learn from her mistakes. She always said that she wished she had the mother that we had. When I fell down, she taught me not to give up, not to make a baby stop me from pursuing my dreams.

"The elders in the community encourage me. When they ask about my academics, they encourage me to go back to school and achieve what I want. We have a sense of belonging in our community. We grew up there, so everyone knows us.

"Seeing the path my sister is taking, we want to change that pattern."

These girls have grit. In spite of living in a house provided by Food For the Poor, having no indoor bathroom, having no father to support them, having no food to eat for many days, having a mother who is blind, having no money to provide for their needs, one getting pregnant, they are overcoming to achieve their goals.

This is a story of hope and encouragement. It is a story of grit.

Esther Tyson is acting principal of Tarrant High School. Email feedback to and