The Value of Dreams

Overheard in NY, one teacher to another: “These kids just have no basis in reality. They’re just dreaming.”

Lifting me, unwilling, out of my book, the complaints from those teachers flooded the subway car we shared. Everyone wants to be a baseball star, or a rapper. Even the kids who want to be lawyers and doctors “just don’t get it.” This girl won’t study for math because she wants to be a model. That kid wants to be a stand-up comic because he likes Kevin Hart – but he’s not even funny! The outrage was bottomless, and I felt myself sinking through it, discouraged by the despair of these teachers.

I hear these complaints more often than I’d like. Since I’ve been working in the Bronx, I’ve been told about how out of touch our students are, how unrealistic their goals, how foolish their dreams. Reality is going to slap them in the face, their teachers have assured me. They’re in for a rude awakening when they fail.

I want to ask: what dreams are not foolish? And I want to argue: no one who can dream can fail.

I became a teacher instead of becoming a writer. I majored in English in college, and I went to college because it was just what you were supposed to do after high school. So I devoted my college years to stories, reading them and writing them. And I told everyone who assumed I would be a teacher that there were plenty of other things one could do with a BA in English (that song from Avenue Q was fun when it came out junior year), all the while guarding my secret dream of being a writer.

I didn’t even know what it meant, to “be” a writer. I couldn’t answer any of the important career questions: where would I work? and how much money would I make? and where would I live? It was a dream. It was wholly impractical, no basis in reality. When I pictured myself as a writer, I was always taller and my stubborn Hermione-hair had relaxed into the effortless, beachy waves that no amount of product or brand of gadget will ever give me. And I usually lived on the beach, in an old mansion, with a whimsical dog that could, like, howl out a Talking Heads song. Or I lived in a warehouse-cum-apartment building like a character from RENT, expect not addicted to heroin. Becoming a writer wasn’t a plan I was executing, or a goal I was carefully progressing towards. It was a dream, a dream that I knew would become a reality.

It didn’t. I became a teacher, not a writer. And I have not once regretted this. Not because teaching is a stable job, or because I can pay my rent; nothing boring like that. Teaching is satisfying and fulfilling and challenging and exciting and all of the things I felt being a writer would be, and I never would have made it to this job if I hadn’t held on to that dream. By most people’s standards, I failed. In truth, the dream has been the secret to my success.

On paper, I had a good upbringing. My family was not poor. I went to school every day, got into a reputable college. I am well-mannered and I know how to cook. The reality of my home life was in discordant contrast to the projected image, and though I am now voluntarily estranged from my abusive-in-every-sense-of-the-word family, when I was living that reality, my dream was all I had. It was the only thing keeping me afloat. It was the reason I got out.

When I hear teachers and parents complain about dreaming children, I want to scream. I want to wrap my arms around their kids and turn myself into something impenetrable and protective. I want to protect these dreams, because I believe in their power. I believe that dreams can lift us when we fall and sustain us when we are starving. I know that we need reality, too. I know that we can’t tell people that dreams are enough to make a life happen. We need the real, and the boring. But we also need the dreams, and some of us more than others.

Something I try to show my students (high school through graduate school) is that we never quite know what’s going on in someone else’s life. We make assumptions, but even when we think we see and hear everything, so much can be (often is) happening in between people’s lines. On paper isn’t reality, either. But we believe it and treat it as fact, and try to sever children from their dreams because we think it’s our duty as adults.

Once in a workshop, an elementary teacher marveled at the high school teachers in the room. “I just don’t know how you can do it!” she said. “Those high school kids are tough!” As the other teachers mused over what it is, exactly, that makes high school so difficult, one voice seized a brief lull to state, “It’s because they don’t imagine anymore.”  There were only about 15 of us, and it paused us all for a moment. I thought about how hard it can be to motivate my students, how defeated many have become. So many that have resigned themselves to not understanding, not being a “good student,” not being seen. I smiled, thinking about how wonderful it is when the walls start to come down and my students lose themselves in play and wonder, but the truth of that teacher’s statement made me so sad.

It’s not that I think you should let the student who has stopped coming to class slide because he’s dreaming that he’ll be a rockstar. But I think that telling that kid he’ll never be a rockstar, or pointing out that he’s not even in a band, will just push him away from you. You become just another hater, just someone else who doesn’t believe in him. My friend Molly likes to talk to kids about “the plan.” You want that? Ok, let’s figure out how you’re going to get it. What an awesome research project could come out of this (I’m sure has come out of this). Maybe instead of bursting bubbles or telling students how impractical their dreams are, we could acknowledge their dreams, validate them, engage them in the study and exploration of them. Give students a chance to figure out what that dream could look like in reality, and open the opportunity to discover new dreams.

Dreams are important, is all. I mean, they were good enough for Einstein.

How do you encourage your students to dream? Let me know in the comments!

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