Grinders Aren’t Heroes: On Student Motivation

Oliva’s Market since 1961 Milford MA.

Of Students and Sandwiches

Grinders are not heroes. In Milford, where I grew up, there were the Oliva brothers who established a small Italian market in 1961 called, what else, Oliva’s Market.  Never mind that two blocks west was Commolli’s Market, and one block east was Mazzarelli’s Market.  Oliva’s is the only one left today and going stronger than ever. Babe, who became the sole proprietor, brought in his oldest son and daughter, and it has expanded into a fine catering business and gift shop in addition to the traditional market. From the beginning, the BOG or Babe Oliver’s Grinder has been, and still is, their most popular item. Half a loaf of Italian bread and the most thinly cut salami, cooked salami, mortadella, peppered ham,  provolone cheese, tomato, onion, oregano and virgin olive oil make this iconic sandwich. Oliva’s is located just off of Route 495. It is not unusual to see large trucks, even 18-wheelers, parked on the small E. Main Street road outside the store around noontime. But do not ever call a grinder a “hero” or “sub”; it is a “grinder” and always will be.

Academic Grinders

While grinders are the way to go at Oliva’s, being a grinder is not what a student ought to be.  Of course, in the academic setting, grinders are not sandwiches—they are students whose goal is to capture a grade rather than actually to learn. They often fall into the category of minimalists, who do just enough to get by but remain entitled to whatever grade they’re after.  

Grinders cut corners because they’re not in it for the growth of the process, but just to get the result at the end.  They’ll read SparkNotes instead of struggling through a difficult book.  Or they’ll regurgitate on a test enough of the teacher’s talking points to make it seem like they know what they’re talking about.  

The grinder joins a club, like the service club, because he thinks it would be great on the resume for college. He has little interest in service or helping others.  

A grinder gets his homework done, but just to get it done. He does it in the hallway right before class—not the night before at home in a quiet setting, where he could actually learn the material, think about it, struggle with it, and build virtue. Or he only crams the night before a test only to forget it after the test.  

Ultimately, grinders don’t achieve an education—just the appearance of one.  They are after external rewards, grades, as opposed to an internal reward, being an educated person.

Doing something continuously that you hate—“grinding it out”—gets old quickly.  So what often happens is the effort begins to wane, and less and less energy is put forth. The expectations for the external reward are still there, but the reward doesn’t come. Ultimately, when the educational process is endured rather than embarked upon, the student ends up frustrated, having little actual learning to show for all the “work” he put in.

Lessons Learned

There are two teachers from high school who said things I still remember well. Gabriel Batista, my U.S. History teacher, was one of them.  In 1974, my junior year, he said, “Your success in life is determined by not how well you do those things you like to do, but how well you do those things you don’t like to do.”

So how does a student convince himself to enter into education and learning—do something he may not like to do—and make it into something he actually does like?  How does he avoid lapsing into a grinder minimalist and instead become a man committed to his own growth?  How does he, in other words, evolve from a student into a scholar?  Internal rewards.

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity states that “provided you did the right thing, it did not matter how or why you did it, whether you did so willingly or unwillingly, sulkily or cheerfully, through fear of public opinion or for its own sake. But the truth is that right actions done for the wrong reason do not help to build the internal quality or character called virtue, and it is this quality or character that really matters” (Lewis 80).

It’s not enough to get through a task begrudgingly; you’ve got to embrace its spirit. That is the only way to reap long-lasting rewards both external and internal. But how does one embrace the spirit of unpleasant work?

How to Stop the Grind

A change in mindset is needed. For example, one man says, “I break stone for a living,” but his colleague says, “I build cathedrals for a living.” Who is more likely to enjoy the job and do it well? The first stonecutter is a grinder. The second is a craftsman.

It has been shown that the right reason breeds more success over time and in the future. Daniel Pink in his book “Drive,” also discusses this idea of internal rewards resulting in greater long-term effects than extrinsic rewards. Pink points to Federick Herzberg, a psychologist turned management professor, who says that basic extrinsic factors are not enough to feel rewarded on the job. What is needed is enjoyment of the work itself, and personal growth (Pink 18). 

Pink also points out in research by W. Edwards Deming that internal rewards for long-term benefit are necessary (Pink 19). In fact, one of the biggest internal motivators is creativity So when doing homework can one find the ability to be a bit creative, and make it your own?

Years ago at a Heights Gala, I heard Dr. Arthur Brooks talk about happiness. He even gives a talk on happiness entitled, “The Art of Happiness,” and wrote a book on happiness: Gross National Happiness. He explains that people are happier who have those things that bring happiness like faith, family, community, and earned success at work (Brooks 33). Each person constructs his own earned success. The agent must be in control of this constructive process; he can’t wait for external factors to line up. In other words, an intrinsic reward that is developed by you translates into doing something for the right reason. Brooks himself says earned success provides that satisfaction (Eric Schulzke Jun 29, 2012).

If you would like to find out if a student is a minimalist then ask yourself some basic questions concerning the student’s behavior.   Do I often hear he can do better or he is an underachiever?  Is there a lack of responsibility taken when forgetting his lunch or homework.  Does no one get an “A” supposedly?  When missing a day of school, is there a call to a classmate to get homework and stay current? 

So a student doing nightly school work well for the Love of God has a better chance of experiencing long term success.  Joining the service club to help feed the poor and performing a corporal work of mercy becomes “permanent”.  Doing homework at night leads one to be an educated man. These internal motivations are long-lasting and provide true satisfaction.

So how does one develop an attitude of reality that has long term benefits?  Just be a saint!  If only it were that easy.  

Internal Tweaks

Instead, try developing internal rewards for tasks. Become a man that can be depended upon by family, friends, teachers, bosses. Develop the virtues. Work on habits.  Write your homework down for each class to be dependable. Have homework time, a routine at home, and keep to it. Even if you do not have 2:30 hours of work, stick to the schedule to develop mastery over youself. Schedule homework in blocks with built-in breaks especially if you tend to be overly active. Use a timer to monitor time in frames of 20-30 minutes to be realistic with yourself. Make a list and prioritize; what comes 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.  And the harder stuff should come first so time may be used most efficiently. Make a personal commitment and do your best. Check your work before you consider it complete to develop a sense of craftsmanship. Stay focused by choosing a good location with no distractions to develop a sense of purpose. Finish one task before working on another to learn about short term goals. Hold yourself accountable. Have someone else hold you accountable.  

Parents can help. Encourage students to plan a weekly schedule so homework may be done at home and not in the hall. Encourage homework to be done to develop a fruitful mind. Discuss the subject as an ongoing conversation so the student wants to know the lesson to be part of an ongoing discussion with dad. Do homework, an ordinary task, for the love of God, as Saint Josemaría would suggest. It’s ok to desire an “A” but it should not be the driving force in your motivation. 

Many new freshmen learn quickly that an 8th grade effort is not going to translate into the grade one expected. Once the students understand that three hours of homework is the expected time for high-school students, it is just a matter of living the truth. Yes, easier said than done, but with continual mentoring like the boy gets at the Heights, most boys at least begin to live in reality.

But remember, parents are the primary educators. Learning a positive disposition and internal joy for anything done will more likely be ingrained the earlier it is inculcated. And like the psychologist Jordan Peterson has said, the first 4 years are critical in developing personality.


Brooks, Arthur, C.  The Conservative Heart, Harper Collins, New York, New York ,2015

Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, Harper Collins, New York, New York, 1932.

Pink, Daniel H.  Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The Penguin Group, New York , New York, 2009.

Schulzke, Eric, “Arthur Brooks: A Happy Warrior Argues for Earned Success”  The Deseret News,  Jun 29, 2012

Dave Fornaciari

About the author:

Dave Fornaciari


As a member of The Heights faculty since 2001, David Fornaciari brings 19 years of prior teaching experience—in the Fairfax County school system, Westminster School in Annandale, and Saint Ignatius School in Maryland—to the School. He will be starting his 41st year as a classroom teacher. Prior to joining the faculty, Mr. Fornaciari’s classroom work focused on science and math, with additional administrative duties as a faculty and student mentor and coach. A former VISTA volunteer where he taught English to Laotian refugees, he holds a master’s degree in education from George Mason University and a B.S. from St. Bonaventure University. Outside of the classroom, Mr. Fornaciari enjoys watching old movies or his beloved Red Sox, reading, and has been spotted watching the Height’s baseball team.

Michael Hude

About the author:

Michael Hude


Michael Hude joined the faculty at The Heights in 2009 and teaches ninth grade English and history, while also serving as a College Counselor. Prior to coming to The Heights, Michael served as the Director of the Elementary Tenley Achievement Program (TAP), a non-profit organization that mentors at-risk youth in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Michael earned a B.A. in philosophy with a concentration in classical languages from the University of Dallas. He then earned an M.A. from The Catholic University of America and taught courses in ancient and modern philosophy to its undergraduates. Michael, his wife Patty, and their children Elizabeth, Maximilian, and Emma, make their home in Frederick, Maryland.

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