What Happens To a Dream Undreamed?
We all have dreams and children perhaps are the greatest dreamers of all because they are so young they have the most to imagine about what their future might be…but what happens to those dreams if we’ve never dreamed them?
I had a student who was an excellent football player. He had all the skills and was an unstoppable presence on the offensive side of the ball. It seemed as though every time our quarterback handed him the ball he’d run for a touchdown. He was so obviously good that colleges came to scout him and recruit him for a scholarship to play for their team once he graduated high school. (Word to parents: If colleges aren’t contacting you and recruiting your child to play for their school then he isn’t any good)
Darnell, and I’ve changed his name to protect me, had just one problem. He wasn’t a very good student, so much so that he never bothered going to class. One would think that this would make him ineligible for after school sports but trust me, public school athletic eligibility is for students who suck at sports or who are marginal at best. Those students who have BIG talent and who can help their teams win BIG time will always be eligible to play somehow and someway. And if by some strange quirk of fate a student with great athletic ability does find himself ineligible to play high school sports in the public schools, there’s always the Catholic schools!
So, the colleges still came calling because let’s face it. What were they going to ask Darnell to do? Go to college so he could go to college classes and be a college student? No, they wanted him to go to their college so he could play big time college football and help them win big time college games. The fact that Darnell did not attend class was not the problem. The problem was that if Darnell didn’t attend class he couldn’t complete his SRA (Special Review Assessment) and consequently wouldn’t receive his high school diploma, making him ineligible for any college sports program.
The Special Review Assessment is a class designed to help students in New Jersey who have not passed the minimum basic skills test necessary for graduation from a New Jersey public school. Students who have met all other graduation requirements but who have not passed the test or the HSPA, short for High School Proficiency Assessment, may take this class after school during their senior year. The class itself is not very difficult and students need to simply demonstrate that they have a grasp on the basic skills that they have been studying for the past 12 years. Thousands of New Jersey students, who would otherwise not receive their diplomas, are able to graduate from high school each year by completing this simple after school class. Darnell however, cut this class too.
So, those of us who knew Darnell, his teachers, coaches, guidance counselors and administrators staged something of an intervention; an after school meeting in the guidance office. There we sat, most of us white, middle class professionals who had but one observation for Darnell.
“Darnell! This is a chance of a lifetime. You can go to college for free. Learn new things. Meet new people. Play football in front of thousands of adoring fans. Maybe even become famous or rich or be on T.V. Who knows? Don’t you want to take advantage of this great opportunity? How can you let this chance slip away? Don’t you want to be somebody?!”
And as I looked around at all of our faces I could see that each of us, the teachers, the coaches, the guidance counselors, the principals, we all had this dream. Everyone’s face was lighting up at the possibilities of a free pass to college, to play football, to run for touchdowns, to hear the crowd roar and be adored by the pretty little co-eds. Even the women in the room had this dream! You could see it on their faces too. Even they wanted to run for touchdowns while the crowd cheered wildly… and all for free…at college. Free! Free! Free! The dream was on everyone’s face. Everyone’s face that is, except Darnell’s…
”Don’t you want to be somebody Darnell? Why don’t you just go to class?”
But Darnell had no answer for us except, “I don’t know.”
He sat quietly and tried to be respectful and contrite but he mostly seemed confused and uncomfortable and was inarticulate under our benign if somewhat incredulous interrogation. And that was when I realized that what we wanted for Darnell was something that he had never dreamed about. They were our dreams. And if thoughts need a vocabulary to give them life so that we may share them with others, then dreams need images, a mental photo album if you will, to make them visible to our mind’s eye so that we may see them for ourselves.
Darnell was a poor kid from a broken home with an inner city background. His mom was on welfare and out of work with no career possibilities. His dad had left years before when he was too young to remember. Darnell’s friends were mostly just like him. Would he see them there at college? Would they be cheering for him on the sidelines? Were any of the images that were dancing around our middle class, white bread heads, in his at that moment? I don’t think so. In order to want to live the dream you have to have the dream and you have to have the images that make up that dream in your head. Dreams are memories. They are memories of a future that you’ve created for yourself and that you are waiting to hopefully live again someday in reality.
Darnell’s dreams, whatever they were that day, probably didn’t involve pictures of college or adoring crowds or a sunlit quad where the coeds laughed and clutched books tightly against their adoring breasts. I’m willing to bet that his dreams were not pasted neatly in a well ordered photo album in his brain either. I didn’t know what Darnell’s dreams were that day and I’m not sure if he knew what they were either.
All I know is that Darnell never lived up to OUR dreams. He didn’t go to his SRA class. He didn’t get his diploma and he didn’t graduate from high school. He and a friend wound up robbing a kid for a little extra cash one day and then he found himself in the middle of a prosecutor’s dream where he now is serving 10 to 12 for armed robbery.
What we need to do in our schools is to find a way to end the nightmares of poverty and inequality that plague so many of our children on a daily basis and replace them with real images and dreams that are obtainable for everyone and that everyone can relate to. We know that education can be the great equalizer, the engine that can power anyone from anywhere to wherever they want to go…but children have to dream it. They have to see it in their mind’s eye from the earliest times in their lives and build a photo album filled with the memories of their successful life ahead…because a dream undreamed, while it may be many things, can never be remembered.