Following the observance, last week, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the dreams we human beings have for ourselves and one another–and, as a corollary, of the dreams some of us don’t have.
The poem below describes an interaction I had several years ago with two young men in my neighborhood in west Jackson. As younger boys, these two had participated in Bible clubs and tutoring sessions (as well as the occasional cookie-baking party) at my home, but they had outgrown all that some time back. We remained friendly, but I had been uninvolved in their day-to-day lives for a while before this conversation.
As I’ve thought back on this incident (and considered sharing this poem), I’ve been plagued by a nagging question: Is it right and good–or elitist and snobby–to want all young people to have (and be able to articulate) dreams for themselves that go beyond the kinds of realities they see around them every day?
Most of us–whether we grow up in low-income inner-city neighborhoods or not–will never hold our “dream jobs.” Is it cruel, I find myself wondering, to urge a young person who has set his sights on something that may well be attainable to aspire toward something more unlikely (just because that far-fetched idea seems more “dreamlike” to me)? Would doing so just sour this young person toward the job and life in which he may eventually find himself? Or is even an unfulfilled dream valuable because it challenges us to learn and grow and attempt things we don’t yet know whether we can achieve? Is shooting for a star and landing on the moon really so terrible?
Perhaps most to the point, from time to time, seemingly impossible dreams do come true. Who am I to attempt to guess whose will, and whose will not?
Personally, I seem to have made it my life’s work to chase dreams–most often with dramatically mixed success–and though I occasionally fantasize about having a “normal” life, I don’t really think I’d want to have things any other way. Then again, I’m not trying to provide for anyone but myself, and I have a family willing and able to catch me when I fall. On the other hand (or perhaps we’re back on the first hand now), should a few extra obstacles prohibit the pursuit of a dream? So I continue to wrestle with this question of what is the best and most loving way to respond to a young person whose ability to dream appears to be stunted.
I welcome any thoughts folks may have on this topic! In the meantime…
The two teenage boys
tell me they’re almost ready
to start looking for jobs—
school having long since ceased to be
a way to spend their days.
and sitting on front porch steps
have apparently become tedious,
or perhaps it’s just that these pursuits
are somewhat less than satisfactory
to the hard-working grandmas
with whom these young men reside.
Eager to show my approbation
of their work-related aspirations,
I ask the boys a question
that seems simple enough to me:
“If you could have any job in the world,
what would it be?”
Both are stumped.
One never does come up with a response.
The other thinks long and hard
with a conspicuous lack
“I guess I’d like to work at Walmart.
I enjoy putting things together, you know.”
Stunned, I mumble something
and stagger off toward my home—
two doors down and a universe away—
not wanting to malign
a respectable ambition,
and yet wishing desperately
that my young neighbors
could conceive a dream
outside the big box.