We had a interesting discussion in our English Composition. Our teacher is a sweetheart, a liberal little old lady. You can count on her to fall on the side of the little people. Like me, she feels that taxes are something that you pay because we are, after all, our brother's keeper. We differ a bit in our ideas about how our brother should be assisted, but we see eye to eye on an awful lot. Thrown into the discussion is one ardent libertarian, one 'survival of the fittest' mentality, and a host of other opinions to add to the mix and sometimes things get quite lively. I've tried to just sit quietly in the class, but I can't. Not if my life depended on it. There's always something that comes up that draws me in. This week, our chapter was on the American Dream. Our first essay indicated that the American Dream has become a myth. The teacher blinked at us from the front of the classroom. "What do you think of that?" she asked. "I look around me and I think that maybe this writer is correct. There are a lot of people without jobs. There are a lot of poor people."
I was quiet for maybe...umm...I don't know...my hand shot up immediately...I was quiet for as long as it took her to call on me...maybe 10 seconds. I was very suspicious of the author's statistics, the ones that he based his essay on. Four out of ten poor children will live their entire lives in poverty. Four out of ten rich children will retain their wealth for all their days. Finally, he pointed out that less than 5% of the nations poorest children will make it into the top earning class, that it is unattainable for a full 95%. But I was quick to point out that 6 out of 10 poor children did manage to do better for themselves than their parents did. 6 out of 10 wealthy kids did wind up being not so successful for themselves. And why should it only be of statistical importance that the poorest become the richest? I pointed out that I live comfortably, and never expected to make it into that top earning class, that it was not even a goal for me.
"No," I said, "I believe that the American Dream is alive and well for anyone that is willing to work hard enough to get it. America has lost its work ethic. People spend most of their lives sitting in front of the television. They don't even look for opportunities to improve their situation. They've lost the vision of the American Dream. Moreover, we have failed a generation of kids. They have a sense of entitlement, but don't understand that one must work for what they have." A young man in the front said that the American worker was no longer productive. Mr. Libertarian said that America had become greedy and materialistic. Around and around the room it went, all of trying to decide whether the American Dream was actually dead or whether America had stopped dreaming.
And our teacher smiled sweetly as we all offered up our opinions, occasionally popping in with, "But don't you think..." That woman loves nothing better than a good debate. But her stance was basically, "It doesn't matter how hard you work, for most Americans the American Dream remains just out of reach." I don't believe that. Mostly because of my own experience. I mean, Tim and I have both, for the last seven years, dealt with repeated unemployment. Tim's been laid off, or his company has closed at least eight times. During one particularly difficult time, he was laid off from three different companies in one year. Currently, he's driving over an hour to work every day, because the good jobs are gone from our area. My own job was part of state budget cuts a couple summers ago. Staying afloat is discouraging, but look also where it has got me: I'm going to college. So yes. Good things have come from it. It has forced us to look for other means of income. We no longer rely on the formerly secure machinist trade to provide a living for us. We adjust our lifestyle to fit our circumstances. We look for opportunities, and we find them. Even in the good times, we are cautious and plan for the bad times.
Around and around the room it went, and everyone had an opinion. At one point, the teacher said, "Well, I do see that students do much more poorly in school than they did twenty years ago, and that makes me sad. When I was a kid, if I got a bad grade, I was the one in trouble, not the teacher. I don't know," she said, trailing off. "I think the key is education. I think every person should be guaranteed a college education."
My hand shot up. After all, I sit next to Mr. Taking-the-class-for-the-fifth-time. (He doesn't like to do homework.) I said, "A college education is available to everyone. If they want it. If they are willing to sacrifice to get it. If a college education is free, people will take advantage of it. If you want someone to do their best, they have to be invested in their education." And then that discussion went round and round, touching on school loans. I was shocked to learn that New York residents pay virtually nothing for the education at JCC. I live in Pennsylvania. I pay a couple thousand dollars every semester, minimally.
As the class wound down, the teacher said, "Well, I can't help think that if we are going to change things around, I think we need to teach our children that it is all about education, that they've got to work hard in school, because there are scholarships available for kids that work hard. They need to know that from the start."
My hand shot up.
"Are you saying that our children need to know that there are opportunities available if they work hard? If they give it their all? Sounds a lot like the American Dream to me...."
And she laughed out loud. "You are right," she said. "You are exactly right." She's a very good teacher. She doesn't mind being bested in a debate. In fact, I think that she relishes it, when it happens.
Last Tuesday, I carried that debate. I'd convinced the class and the teacher that the American Dream lived still. Gosh. It felt great.