Redefining the American Dream, Because Hard Work and Land is Not the Only Path to Success

I am so happy to be back here. I haven’t written for myself in a few months because we’ve been through the hell of moving. We bought a house in Bethlehem, PA just a few weeks before school started and life has been chaotic, not just this past month, but this entire summer. There was all the work of trying to buy a house in this insane market, in one of the hottest areas in the country, which by itself was overwhelming, but we also traveled through eleven states this summer on four different trips, two of which were for my wife’s work. It’s been a ridiculously busy summer for us, a good busy to be sure, and it culminated in us getting this house. All of this and we can say we finally made it, baby! We’ve achieved that fabled American dream.

Our House

So if we’ve “made it,” it certainly didn’t feel like we’ve achieved anything great. We achieved something, yes, but if we now have a piece of land, with a beautiful home, with a pool and everything, we’re both gainfully employed and can provide for our family, why did this moment not feel more, well, momentous? We did the thing! Where’s the fireworks? The heavenly chorus? Uncle Sam riding up to our house on a buffalo with a welcome basket of apple pie, a copy of the Constitution, and maybe a gun to protect our newly acquired piece of America?

Perhaps I didn’t feel those things because I never really considered what we have as that fabled American Dream. If I’m going to be honest, I felt like I’ve achieved that years ago when I started teaching. We rented a small house, in a neighborhood I didn’t really feel like I belonged in, but we were happy, I was doing what I wanted to do, and we were making a difference in our community. That made me feel like a success. That, to me was the essence of the American Dream, everything else is just, well, the American reality. Those other things are a lot of hard work, they’re a distraction, they’re entrapments that for some they will never escape, and probably never want to. And that’s okay. For many, this is what the end goal looks like and that’s okay. One person’s dream is another’s nightmare and it takes all kinds for this world to work. I recognize that, and I’m not dismissing the fact that we’ve been able to achieve what many will never be able to reach, and I guess that’s my problem. Can it really be the American Dream, if many of us will never be able to get there?

For years, in almost all of the curriculums I’ve taught, at some point we explore what the American Dream was, from the Declaration of Independence, to Langston Hughes and his poem “Let America be America Again,” to anything by Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, and in this last year Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill we Climb.” The inescapable conclusion all my classes have come to is that the American Dream, the classic one, is one that many of us will never get, but enough of us will so as to make it always seem within reach. Statistically speaking, with the separation between the classes, it’s almost an impossibility for millions of Americans. That’s why the American Dream means needs to be changed. Specifically, what it means to be successful needs to be redefined, because that is the cornerstone of what that dream is, that anyone here can succeed. But to paraphrase a French food critic that was a CGI rat’s biggest challenge (damn you Disney, and your ridiculous relevance), it’s not that everyone can succeed, but success can come from anywhere.

So, once all the boxes are emptied and the pictures are hung, I will ask what can I do for my country, for my community to make it greater? What can I do to make the place I live be the America we were promised? Then, I will try to make that happen, because that is my American Dream. It’s not a peak where I have succeeded at reaching, I’ve already mounted that pinnacle and placed my flag. My Dream is a range of mountains where we help each other reach their own peaks. Sometimes it’s just guiding others, but sometimes that requires coming down off of my own mountain to help others climb theirs, and sometimes it’s realizing some people don’t want to climb a mountain, but are happy living around the base, but still need help nonetheless. Imagine if that was the dream of everyone, where yes, we succeed ourselves, but we all helped each other climb our mountains too, to face their challenges, then we all could achieve our own version of the dream, but also experience and be a part of others as well. Imagine seeing a whole range of flags, symbols of our collective successes and pride, instead of just staring only at your own.

Photo by Shashank Kumawat on

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