The Italian’s American Dream

The blossoms will be pink. Not mine (well, maybe, we’ve just yet to find out), but I’m referring to the Magnolia trees in front of me while I gather myself on the front porch to write again. So much can change in a week’s time in spring, and I only wish the growth were as visible when I catch my reflection in the mirror and can’t see beyond the wrinkles in the corners of my eyes. They are only a handful of buds gathering at the tips of the branches now, but unmistakably, the blossoms will be pink.

Even the dead tree in the back yard has made progress in a week’s time. Just last night, I pulled into my driveway and an unfamiliar black man hurried over from the Washington’s house a couple doors down. “Would you mind if I chopped up that tree for firewood?” he asked. I breathed a sigh of relief and gave him my blessing, dismissing the nagging thought I should probably check with my landlord first. As I settled in for a night of ad design for the yearbook, the buzz of the saw from outside comforted me. As I worked for the next hour, it soothed me. And as the sun was tucking itself in for the night, the tree savior knocked on my door to let me know he was done for the night and would be back to gather the wood and grind up the base.


“It seemed a waste to let it rot,” he explained with a hint of a glimmer in his eye. “That’s the fourth tree in a week I’ve done. I give the firewood to people who need it.” I thanked him silently for far more than I did aloud. When I shut the door and snapped off the porch lights, I giggled with delight and relished the rest of the evening with an unexpected bubbling of joy that most would have deemed disproportionate to the event.

Despite its seemingly doomed demise last week, my grand ole maple discovered life after death. Will I be so fortunate?

The current unit of study with my juniors is the American Dream. The course runs concurrently with U.S History, so cross-disciplinary instruction effectively contextualizes the Rise of Realism and Naturalism. After a brief review of the era, we dove into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s not-so-short story Winter Dreams where our leading character Dexter “wanted not association with glittering things and glittering people – he wanted the glittering things themselves.” His desires motivated him toward a social standing that sparked more than flashing dollar signs. We spent extensive time discussing our own interpretations of the American Dream with students highlighting their own desires. Education. Money. Good jobs.

This morning, my first class asked me if they could do a freewrite – and what English teacher would deny a request for honest outpourings of thought in written word? “Okay, here’s your ‘go’ word, are you ready?” Insert emphatic pause here. “Dreams.” A collective murmur responded of “Oh’s”, both exclaimed and moaned. An uncanny similarity sounded in their share time: they bear a deep-seated belief that anything is possible. Their dreams are hopeful and unabashed. These seventeen-year-olds are salivating for a life beyond high school that is just beyond their reach that promises fulfillment of latent and expressed desires for goodness, worth, and value.

It seemed almost a shame to move forward with our exploration of David Wallechinsky’s 2006 musings, “Is the American Dream Still Possible?” which showcases the struggles of our middle class to experience financial freedom or fulfillment of that dream. His conclusion that the ability to make the dream a reality lies in becoming “active citizens” is the product of a mindset not yet necessitated by these teenagers. Understanding, is, quite literally, beyond their years. Avae and Jeremiah and Andi and Davia’s attempts to dissect this conclusion with their adolescent interpretations amounted to no more than, “So we should vote?”

Goodness, worth, and value are valid desires that I would name in my own American Dream. Admittedly, I give little attention to politics or economics when considering my ability to achieve it. College was never in question. I craved knowledge, entertaining the thought of changing my major with every new venture from philosophy to history class, but my childhood commitment to teach English dismissed them each. I stuck with my dream.

When it comes to career and financial success, I concur with my students, as one who boasted today, “I can pull myself up by my own bootstraps,” giving merit to the cliché (another of our vocabulary words). So when and how did the pragmatism about realistic expectations and a lack of personal control take root only in those parts of me intended to grow social or emotional vegetation?   My lack of success toward my other lifelong goals overshadows the contentment I should have over establishing myself in a noble career that is inherently one of value. By Wallechinski’s standards, I have achieved the American Dream.

Maybe it’s the Italian Dream that’s played roulette with my heart. After emigrating from Italy at the turn of the century, my great-grandfathers truly were pursuing and achieving the American Dream. If asked why she never learned to speak Italian, my mother will explain with a healthy pride that her parents believed it was essential to assimilate fully into American culture. And while the language may have been lost on our subsequent generations, the Italian zeal for family is firmly rooted, unaffected by winds of change or seasons of storm.

I do not have an answer to the never-ending debate over nature verses nurture and wouldn’t attempt to posit an economically sound rationalization for ensuring the realization of one’s American Dream. Only have I the dull ache in the core of my being that, when considering dreams as I am right now, physically manifests itself as a tightening in my chest and the threat of tears just forming to assert that I want more for myself than I have right now. Will I be judged harshly if I admit I want to be more than a teacher?

Like Fitzgerald’s Dexter, I want more than association with the glittering things – I want the glittering things themselves. No, my motivation is not for social standing in terms of class, but it’s social standing nevertheless. Husband. Children. White picket fence. Family dinners at 5:30 pm. Throw in a front porch swing watching grandchildren playing under pink Magnolias in full-bloom and I believe I could die a happy woman, dreams fulfilled.

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