I Don’t Know How to Talk to My Students About the American Dream

My students believe in a meritocracy. Me? I’m not so sure.

I Don't Know How to Talk to My Students About the American Dream

Last week, my seventh graders read this article about social class for a Socratic Seminar. We’re about to read The Outsiders, so we’ll be talking a lot about social class and the American dream. It’s always a provocative read, and we follow it up with a debate about the advantages of being wealthy versus being working class.

Our conversations about the American dream are problematic.

First of all, my kids buy into a lot of stereotypes, no matter how blatantly their own experience contradicts them. Every year, kids tell me that upper and middle class parents don’t spend time with their kids because they’re working. Never mind the fact that wealthier folks are more likely to have jobs with flexible schedules. and never mind the fact that many of my kids are parenting their younger siblings because their own parents have to work late at second and third jobs.

My students buy into the idea that America is a pure meritocracy.

They have a “no excuses” mentality; if you work hard and play by the rules, no matter what disadvantages you may face, you will be successful. Automatically. No matter what.

In a way, this is a great thing. I want my kids to believe this. I need for them to believe this, because it keeps them working and focused and goal-oriented, all of which are important for their success. And of course, I’ve seen a lot of kids from rough backgrounds go on to achieve amazing things.

It’s just that I don’t think it’s entirely true.

I used to teach at a private school. Every single one of my kids went to college, regardless of how smart they were, how hard they worked, or how much they played by the rules. The kid who stole valuable belongings from his teachers? His parents donated money for the new gym and he got an award for citizenship at the end of the year.


Meanwhile, in my 10 years teaching at a Title I school, I’ve seen dozens of smart kids give up or drop out or simply not be able to overcome the odds that are almost hopelessly stacked against them. Do I think that anybody can succeed, given enough talent and drive? Maybe. But it’s sure as hell not a level playing field.

My students, however, insist that a working-class background is an advantage, not a liability.

They are learning how to work hard, they tell me. They know not to take what they have for granted. They’ll know how to cook a meal and do their own laundry in college when others won’t. They’re not wrong about that; my kids are badass and independent and street-smart and capable, because their parents raised them that way.

The notion of a meritocracy gives my kids confidence in themselves, and that’s wonderful. But when we start talking about their parents, it gets problematic. Because if anyone in the country can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, why is Lupe’s mom working two jobs below minimum wage? Why is Cora’s dad a janitor when he wanted to be a doctor back in Sierra Leone? Why is Will’s family couch surfing with friends and relatives because, since his grandmother’s accident, they can’t make rent?

My students’ parents are smart. They’re hard working, they play by the rules, and they are the most motivated people I’ve ever met. They will work themselves to the bone to give their kids the opportunities they haven’t had. But they still aren’t successful in the ways in which our culture defines success. And when we discuss the meritocracy, that becomes painfully clear, and there’s serious tension there.

Do my kids continue to believe in the meritocracy and write their parents off as failures?

Or do they acknowledge that sometimes the deck is stacked against you and reckon with the hopelessness that this awareness can bring?

I don’t have an answer.  I try to walk the middle ground.  I tell my kids that, to succeed in life, you need talent, determination, grit, and you also need a little bit of luck.  And I tell them that they already got their luck in being born to their parents, people who will work long hours to put food on the table and give them a shot at their dreams.  I may not believe that our country is a meritocracy, but I sure as hell believe every word of that.

Many of my students live in poverty, and most are either immigrants or first-generation citizens. They face an array of disadvantages, and I know that not all of them will achieve their goals, no matter how much they deserve it. But while they’re in my room, I’ll keep trying to walk that line between hope and realism, and I’ll give them every bit of support I can to level the playing field, so that they can help build a country where everyone truly does have the opportunity to succeed.