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AmeriCorps Helps Students Find Optimism for American Dream

Monday, March 09, 2015

Anyone who knows the story of the glittering Jay Gatsby and his obsession with an unattainable, idealized love knows that the cautionary tale is a comment on the so-called “American Dream.” So when my English III Honors class started reading Fitzgerald’s classic this week, I introduced the concept of an “American Dream” with a series of prompts:amc logo

Stand up if one of your goals is to “be rich.”

Stand up if you want to be married.

Stand up if you want to have children.

Stand up if you want to own your own house one day.

Stand up if you want to live in the suburb.

The list went on, and their responses were fascinating. Only boys stood up to affirm their desire to be rich, and then all but two of those boys sat down when I asked about being married. Interestingly, every single person stood up to affirm that it was important that they own their own house someday.

But then I read the two most important prompts of all:

Stand up if you feel empowered to reach all your goals and live your dreams.

Every single student stood up. I’m not sure why, but I have to admit I was surprised. Then:

Stay standing if you feel that where you’ve come from, or something about your background, is a barrier to your success which you will have to overcome.

One brave young black woman stayed standing. I thanked her for her honesty.

I left school that day optimistic, because I live in a country where youth, at least those in my classroom in Tampa, feel empowered to achieve their dreams. But I also left with a renewed awareness that for many youth in this country, the journey to achieving those dreams will be a long, difficult, and (at least for the one young woman in my classroom) potentially lonely road. 

The Oscar-winning song “Glory,” written by Common, John Legend, and Che Smith, took Tampa Catholic High School by storm this week—students begged to listen to it, and when it played, they would sing along. It’s a catchy song, but that’s not why they got so into it. The song is an empowering, optimistic tribute to the promise of future “glory,” and you can feel it as you listen. 

AmeriCorps embodies this American optimism. At this moment, 75,000 AmeriCorps members are serving communities across the country, innovating and building a better America. Lila Watson, an Australian Aboriginal woman, once said to mission workers:

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.”

AmeriCorps members do not come “to help” in any patronizing way—they come to stand with those they aim to serve because we are all part of the promise of America. At a time in history when it is perhaps easier to become jaded and cynical, they see and work toward a better future.

I am proud to be one of them.