Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Dreams You Just Have to Let Die...

Sisters
My sisters and I, past our primes as gymnasts.

When I was in the sixth grade the US women’s gymnastic team won gold. Every girl that was remotely close to my age was quite nearly obsessed with this group of seven girls who danced and pranced and balanced and twirled on international television better than any other seven girls from any other country.

And we were taken.

My sisters and I discussed and negotiated the picture spreads from USA Today on a daily basis as we developed our own gymnastics collages. We watched them perform as late as our parents would let us stay up, celebrating with each high point performance, feeling crushed as Kerri Strung hurt her leg one vault shy of finishing her performance, only to be blown away by her tear-jerking, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring finish which solidified the gold.

We had won. We had all won.

For me, no Olympics has ever been quite as climactic, no athlete quite as endearing, no performance worth emulating quite as much. I can still list all seven members of that team (but I will spare you).

Throughout elementary school I secretly hoped there was a chance, just a small chance that I had a shot at being an Olympic gymnast. I dreamed of flipping through the air in the midst of a floor routine, landing a perfect finish off the uneven bars, waving at the flashing cameras with my gold medal.

And then I grew up.

At some point I realized I didn’t have a shot since I hadn’t been practicing twenty hours a week since the age of two. I also realized that I didn’t want to practice twenty hours a week, let alone for a decade. And thus I began to learn that dreams don’t always come true, or rather, dreams aren’t always what you think they are going to be.

As a teacher, I inevitably discover the dreams and hopes and aspirations of my students. Sometimes I ask for this information; sometimes it is offered. Sometimes these aspirations are feasible, and sometimes I wonder how the student has made it this far (14 years? 16? 18?) without a decent reality check. (You want to be what? With your grades?)

When I am faced with these dreamers, I am faced with a decision: perpetuate the dream, or squelch it? If I perpetuate the dream they continue to think that D’s in high school are not a problem in becoming an astronaut or veterinarian or columnist for Seventeen. If I squelch the dream I am "the bad guy". I am condemning the student to a lifetime of low self-esteem, poverty and a lifetime of minimum wage service.

The year before the life-changing gold medal performance I went to a gymnastic practice session with a friend from school. She actually had been training since she was two because her dad was in charge of a gym. During this practice session I was assessed and the coaches gave me a general idea of where I might be placed if I were to begin training with them. At the age of eleven even I could figure out that I was behind the Olympic curve. Gymnasts were champs by fourteen, or too old to make it. I was eleven and already a realist: I knew three years wasn’t quite enough time. Had I been scouted at nine, perhaps it would have been a possibility, but eleven? I was just too late. There would be other Olympic opportunities, I determined.


The line I walk with students who still think they can be gold medal gymnasts (both literally and figuratively) is a delicate one. I don’t want them to give up on the Olympics; I just want them to recognize what it takes to get there.

In the end I don’t really need to proclaim anything to them, as much as the cynic in me wants to. Most students will figure out, soon enough, what it takes to reach their goals. Eventually most of them will meet a dead end and have to refigure what their destination is going to be. For some students it will be painful, for others it will be just another bump in the road.

Some day I hope one of my students blows me away and nails a performance that “couldn’t be done” to bring home the gold. I will gladly eat any predictions I made prematurely, and be glad nothing I said or thought in my quiet (and sometimes loud) cynicism kept them from trying for the seemingly impossible.

And that will be a newspaper clipping worth saving.

1 comment:

  1. Wow this was powerful. This took me back to my freshmen year in high school where my counselor said I just wasn't "book-smart" so maybe I could grow up and be a lifeguard or something. I really crushed me. As you said it lead to years and years of low self-esteem and negativity. Now as a swim coach I too see the dreamers and the ones that train for the national competitions, etc. I decided long ago that I would just encourage them to be the best they could be. Encourage them to continue on studying, training, etc., and never give up. Whether or not they make it to the final competition or get a 4.0 they at least know I'm behind them 100% encouraging them to be all they can be. Sounds kind of cheesy I know but it's the only way I can explain it. I also encourage a plan B or C just in case plan A doesn't work out. It never hurts kids to have a back up plan!

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