Recently, I read Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing With Feathers” to my high-school students in order to set up a writing assignment. Dickinson describes hope in terms of a bird that perches in the soul, and the students were to follow Dickinson’s example and create their own vision of hope through the use of metaphors.
My motive went beyond lessons in grammar and punctuation, to a more pressing goal: to invite hope back into the classroom. This particular group of students had endured more than their fair share of adverse childhood experiences, and as they progressed through their treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, their essays had taken a very dark turn. Their personal writing meandering through tales of neglect and abuse, and far too many concluded in dead-ends of despair. If they could bring hope to life on paper, and assign it some tangible form, they might just resurrect it from the dead in their lives as well.
The success of my students, both in school and in life, depends on hope. Its presence in my classroom doesn’t just dictate the mood of the students’ essays, it can mean the difference between life and death.
I did not have to explain that to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Valerie Maholmes when I called her for advice. There is no more important predictor of success than hope, Maholmes said, describing it as the ability to envision a more positive future, even when all evidence points to the contrary. Hope begets resilience because it is the magical force that enables children to adapt and heal emotionally from their adverse childhood experiences. According to Maholmes, who recently wrote a book about the importance of hope in fostering the well-being of children, kids who are able to adapt and overcome these experiences tend to have a higher sense of self-efficacy, which feeds their sense of competency and control over their environment and destiny.