Stephanie was my student. I helped to teach her Writing class, in an elective offered through her suburban public school. Stephanie was sixteen when I met her, and eighteen when we parted ways. Her writing was flimsy when we began, and with many iterations of feedback, suggestions and support, it got markedly better the first year. The second, she entered a contest held by the local newspaper – a call for personal essays. She worked tirelessly on her entry. I must have read and responded to seventeen drafts. Stephanie’s mother also read seventeen drafts, maybe more. Her mother noticed the call for submissions in the local paper. She suggested Stephanie take a chance. Stephanie won. Her essay was published among four other student writers – sandwiched between an ad for guitar lessons and a twelve-inch pepperoni pizza for five bucks.
Stephanie’s full time High School English teacher – I was an assistant – suggested she use the essay to apply to college. A child of immigrants, she would be the first in her family to try. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to afford it, and her teacher sent her to the guidance counselor to talk about financial aid options. Her mother came with her.
Liz was my student. The first day of our class she threatened to attack another student. But she didn’t. Liz was an angry child – and became an angry teenager in the time I knew her. She lived in many homes, with many different adults. She often slept in school. I asked her about this one day and in an uncharacteristically unfurled way she answered, “I don’t sleep a lot at night.” Liz had five homes when she was in my class. Her grandmother came to her parent teacher conferences, and spoke almost no English and though she tried very hard to understand – with a translator – what was going on, it was clear she mostly didn’t. As an art teacher, I didn’t have much knowledge of Liz’s other subjects, I only saw her for 45 minutes, twice a week. She was interested in art, but when I pushed her to engage with it, she retreated into herself.
At one point, I saw an opportunity for her to join an afterschool program. It was a program for youth to work with mentor artists and explore their emotions through art. I thought it was perfect. The administration told me she had too many behavior problems to be trusted in the program. We called her grandmother to ask what she thought, and she never called back.
I saw Liz years after I taught her, because she still lived in the neighborhood where the school was located and I still taught there occasionally. She must have been fifteen. She was swollen pregnant. I waved at her from across the street but she walked the other way, away from the school.
The American Dream promises the pursuit of happiness in the land of opportunity. When I hear this, I imagine a field of opportunity plants just ripe for the picking. I imagine frolicking children, dancing through the plants, plucking them from the earth, green, fresh and smelling delicious. There is some truth to my imagination. If you are born in the right neighborhood, if you have a deep supportive system of adults helping you to be all that you can possibly be, you can harvest opportunity, plentifully. But if you don’t, then you can’t, and for many young people, the American Dream is more of a nightmare.
I am working, like many people are working, to change this. But until we recognize the difference an opportunity makes, and we open the field to all students, I fear we will not make the change that we promise.
(this piece was adapted from the first page of my doctoral capstone for HGSE- which I just finished – thank goodness)