I never really thought about the American Dream until I started teaching. I’m weird. I didn’t ever envision my future wedding, my future life, my future anything. I knew I wanted to teach and I knew that teaching wasn’t lucrative. Money didn’t matter as long as I had enough to pay my bills. Once I started teaching American Literature, I had to think about the American Dream—it seems to be this idea that everyone can reach for the stars as long as they are willing to work hard. It’s a pretty bullshit thing. Most people work hard their entire lives and barely have enough to get from paycheck to paycheck.
My American Dream was having enough money to pay my bills, a place to live alone, and a job that I enjoyed more than I dreaded it. I am blessed enough to have those things. My students will not really be so lucky. All my college expenses (1991-1995) were $35,000-$40,000; my parents kicked in $12,000-$15,000 (I hope I’m low-balling my parents’ contribution) over the four years I attended college and I worked 25-hours a week during the school year and full-time in the summers and on breaks. Between those things, I had enough to make it through college without any student loans. This is totally unrealistic for any students I teach who choose to attend even a small four-year state school—all the expenses for four years at my alma mater now are around $100,000 (and I am underestimating it). No one is going to be able to get enough FAFSA grants or scholarships to pay for that without some heavy loans. So, for my students the American Dream has to be different.
I don’t know what it is for them—maybe it’s simple like my version or maybe it’s just the hope that they can enjoy their lives while paying off outrageous student debt. Maybe it’s that they’ll find a job they mostly enjoy that gives them enough money to live on and have a little fun with. Maybe it’s getting married and only needing a combined sixty hours a week to keep all the bills pain and manage a little something something in savings.
Or, maybe the current American Dream is just getting through each day with enough money, enough to eat, enough to take care of those they love.