Last fall, my oldest came home from school, and during a round of “How was your day?” and “What’s for supper?” told me with absolutely no fanfare, “Mom I’m going to an Ivy League school, but don’t worry; I’m getting a scholarship.” She was 11 at the time. These words spilled from my daughter’s lips as confidently as if she were spelling her own name or supplying her date of birth. That night I went to bed wondering how in the world I was going to break the news to Nora, that while it is nice to have goals, this one was just not very realistic. I decided to simply allow nature to take its course and keep my opinion to myself (that was an unrealistic goal on my part, I like to talk way too much).
Every now and again, I would find my mind wandering back to that day and the conversation in our kitchen with my sweet, wide-eyed little girl. The truth is my little girl isn’t so little anymore, and while she still might be wide- eyed and innocent (Thank you, Lord), she is also hard working, diligent and compassionate. Whip-smart, too. Who was I to rain on her pre-teen parade? After all, anything’s possible, right?
I don’t know about other people, but I tend to conjure the most random of thoughts at the most mundane times. I’ll often create the title of a column while in the shower. I might not use it for months, but somehow I manage to store it away in my subconscious like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter. Eventually, I’ll utilize it somewhere. I get flashes of my childhood while stopped at a red light. Returning books (so unacceptably overdue it should be an offense punishable by law) to the local library reminds me of an old collection of .45 records my sister once had. Folding towels has been known to make me weepy. I’m not quite sure if it’s remorse for all the childhood chores I abandoned half-done, or the realization that I am the lone towel-folder on a never-ending laundry front that I find so emotionally debilitating these days. Nevertheless, at the end of a rather uneventful day, I began to straighten the desks in my classroom. As the metal legs of the last desk ground against the aging institutional grade tile, my brain involuntarily pulled up a file I had found no need to retrieve in two decades.
During my 6th grade social studies class, each of us had to stand beside our respective desks and declare what it was we thought we might want to be “when we grew up.” When my turn arrived, I stood up quickly and declared too loudly, “I’m going to go to Harvard!” Now I knew darn well that Harvard was not an occupation, but I just wanted so badly to be the one kid to accomplish something no one else in that class had a mind to do. As I sat down, I heard a guy from the back row half whisper, “geek.” If memory serves me correctly, that heckler grew up to collect unemployment benefits every winter in order to hone his deer-hunting prowess. For those who may not already know, I am not Harvard educated, nor will I probably ever be. Twenty years ago, Harvard, for a girl in a tiny Mississippi town with very few resources, was a very lofty goal.
I couldn’t help but obsessively mull over the reasons I had given up my ability to dream big, because whatever the reason might have been, I was dangerously close to passing on the “dream killing” mentality to my children. As an educator, was I instilling that small-mindedness into my students as well? The reason I had dismissed “The Harvard Dream” so readily is simultaneously complicated and simple: I bartered my dream away for the basic need of love and acceptance and I didn’t even realize I had traded in my core values much later. A decade later, I was sitting in a line at a fast food drive-thru, a bit too impatiently, yelling at the misguided teenager at the window because someone had forgotten to add cheese. Helpful Hint to teenage drive-thru window employees: It’s never about the cheese.
The first piece of my dream went to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy driving a Jeep Laredo. Every time I saw him, the air left the room. At 16, part of me decided that there was really no need to make use of my God-given gifts because this teenaged man-child was going to marry me and make me the queen of the trailer park. My love of learning took a backseat to everything he wanted. He never asked. I did this freely. Everything was great for two whole months in 1993, until he decided he needed a girl who wasn’t raised as devoutly Catholic as I had been.
By 21, another big chunk of my identity went to a guy who repaired heating and cooling units for a living. I did everything within my power to make him happy. I found it extremely difficult to concentrate on my studies at the local community college, because he had my attention. He had been checking thermostats all over the tri-county area. Ironically, while he received numerous late night service calls, he inevitably seemed to always be a little low on cash. I know, because he always asked to borrow mine. I gave it to him; besides, it was “for us.”
I gave my dreams away one by one in order to please people who were never really deserving of my love and loyalty in the first place. Only when I had no money, no friends, no man and only my intellect to depend upon did I begin to reflect upon and build the life I believed I truly deserved. Nora just may be in the Ivy League some day; if that is her dream and we can afford it, then so be it. Who am I to decide what any child’s limitations are? The cycle stops here. I refuse to teach my children or my students to settle. It doesn’t take the brains of a rocket scientist to know: Harvard has been around for 250 years, and a Jeep can be traded in any old time for a newer model.