Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The dream killers

Spike Lee came to our campus this week, and I was very glad to see him here. The Writing Department, all by itself, tried to bring him in many years ago but just couldn't afford it. I'm excited that someone higher up the food chain at UCA had the same idea. Lee gave a good if not exactly scintillating talk, recounting his days as a college student, telling the story of how, with the support of some key people, he became a filmmaker. While it was mostly a standard fare talk for a visiting artist, Lee did say one thing that really struck me. He felt so strongly about this that he repeated the statement twice: "Parents kill more dreams than anyone." I'm not sure I'd ever heard the sentiment formed so succinctly before. As a former dreamy young person and a parent of two young people now, the statement resonated with me, probably more than most people in the audience. This is a subject of vital importance, one that my wife and I have discussed in detail recently in regards to our own children. It's also something that our creative writing students run up against constantly with their own "well-meaning" parents (or girlfriends or professors or bosses or . . .). And I'm betting that if you are a fiction writer, maybe a budding historical novelist, you've come up against a Dream Killer once or twice; and if you've not had your dreams killed, they have at least been smirked at. Perhaps by the very people who ought to be even more concerned than you that your dreams be allowed to breathe.

Let's be honest, this is almost always about money. More accurately, it's about what jobs parents think will make the most money for their children and therefore what jobs the parents insist their children pursue in order to get at that mythical pot of green. Sometimes, less often, it's about respectability, about what jobs the parents think will make their children--or themselves, really--look good in the eyes of friends and relatives. And that may be an even more pathetic equation. Talk about trying to live through your kids. Look Johnny, I know you want to be a composer, but I think Aunt Alice will be really impressed if you become a lawyer, so let's just toss that silly sheet music aside, shall we? As exaggerated a formation as that sentence sounds, I know someone who actually thinks this way. Who actually thinks like that exactly.

The fallacies surrounding all this dream murder are so numerous it's hard to know where to begin. First, it is very difficult to imagine someone succeeding, monetarily or otherwise, in a career in which he or she isn't interested. Because if the person isn't interested in it, it probably means they are no good at it. We tend to pursue what we like, and what we like tends to be what we're good at. It's not as if you can plop a would-be marine biologist into a surgical career and just say, "Okay, now succeed!" Second, if it's money parents are interested in, then what they should want is for their children to choose careers they're interested enough in to stick with and build a life around. No one gets rich (or happy) moving from job to job to job, or--worse--from career to career to career. Choose something you like and stick with it, throw yourself into it, watch the fruits of your choice with time. (Remember that book from a couple decades ago? Do What you Love and the Money Will Follow.)

But the great sin of killing a young person's dreams, telling him or her what they can't do, has nothing to do with money. It has to do with abusing someone's soul. After all, parents are the caretakers, not the autocrats, of the souls of their children. It is precisely not their job to tell the children what career choice to make, but to provide a way for their children to make their own choices, and then support those choices enthusiastically. After all, your children, like you, only live once; they have one opportunity to realize dreams. Who the hell are you to rob them of their one opportunity? I was lucky. Both of my parents were scientists, but when I realized in high school that my talents lay elsewhere, when I decided I would be headed to college not to study physics or chemisty but literature and creative writing, my parents supported me unhesistantly. They knew that to truly "make it" I had to fully approve of, and be passionate about, my own choice of a major. I really could not have asked for wiser parents. (Spike Lee, fortunately, had a similar experience.)

Like I said, some of our students are not so lucky, especially our students who are first generation college students. Their parents don't seem to understand college at all, much less pursuing a major one is fascinated by. (The most absurd example I've heard yet: A student in our department is only a semester away from graduating with a degree in creative writing, and her family is now pressuring her to quit college, return home, and start work in the local factory. In other words, to throw her college education out the window and aspire to be just like them. Huh? The pressure is getting so intense she may be robbed of the financial support necessary to finish.) The saddest aspect, finally, about this style of parenting--top down, unimaginative, proscriptive and prescriptive--is that it leads to hollowed out people, to adults who aren't really. 65 year olds who are mentally 16 and emotionally 7. (And don't we have enough of those already?) Adults who can't make decisions for themselves, or never trust the decisions they do make, because they've been allowed to make life's most crucial decisions, or because their own decisions have never been respected. People who have never known the satisfaction of putting themselves on a certain, self-directed course--come hell or high water--and seeing the benefits of that choice come to fruition as years and decades go by. My children are going to have every opportunity to see their dreams set in motion. And no one is going to play the role of Dream Killer. I simply cannot allow it. As a parent, I've got no bigger charge.


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