There Are No Grizzlies on the French Broad River

Felix Dowsley, Boys Program Director


I’m willing to bet that when middle school boys hear the word courage, they picture someone like Davy Crockett or Samuel L. Jackson wrestling a grizzly bear while parachuting from a burning airplane. That, at least, is the male model of courage most often held up for them to admire. There may be a shred of truth to that: there are moments when courage involves sensible self-sacrifice and a readiness to endure physical discomfort or even place oneself in harm’s way to protect another. But we don’t expedition in grizzly country, and in our middle schoolers’ lives, courage takes the form of working together rather than wrestling apart. 

When our staff gained consensus that courage was one of four core character traits we want to build in our students, we spoke explicitly about the need to redefine that term for these boys. They will practice courage when they canoe their first big rapid, but their most courageous act at FBRA may be admitting they are wrong, apologizing to a friend, or standing up for what they believe is right. Courage in the classroom and in the mountains is meaningless if it does not translate to heartfelt vulnerability and moral courage.

In practice, building courage doesn’t require a grizzly bear.  Instead, it requires an unflinching gaze towards mistakes or failures: yes, I made my friend cry and need to apologize. Yes, I copied my friend’s homework and need to regain my teacher’s trust. But these failures legitimize the successes of our students and alumni when they continue their quest of building character and integrity. 

It takes hard work and determination to build the courage muscle. For our staff, determination emerged as a core character trait that envelops many words and phrases that we strive to cultivate in our students: work ethic, tenacity, commitment, fortitude, persistence, stick-to-it-ness, growth mindset… in essence, a kid’s ability to fail and try again until they get it right. We hope to graduate students who apply the mantra “every day is a training day” not only to algebra and abs but also to their responsibilities as community members and citizens. We believe that determination will ensure their durability as lifelong learners– sometimes, learning feels like wrestling a grizzly bear– and the courage to face difficulties time and time again.