Requiem for a Dream

This column appeared in the Northern Express on January 14, 2017



This is going to be a very different column than the one I planned to submit earlier in the week.  But just hours before I submitted my work, something terrible happened and “Stop the Presses!” burned through my brain.

(Cue the heavy organ music)

On Tuesday, January 10, 2016, we all got to witness the death of something we never thought could die.  But there, on our televisions, we witnessed President Barack Obama deliver a eulogy for the American Dream.  There were tears and moments of nervous laughter that often accompany eulogies. For a full hour the President described the things that have defined the promise of America for over 200 years. He spoke proudly of how our country has overcome many of the challenges it has faced in striving to make good on Jefferson’s promise of true equality for all men.

He spoke glowingly of the richness of our culture because of immigration.  He praised the vital role of unions in building our middle class.  He enthusiastically noted the bravery of people who stood up against the evils of discrimination.

There he stood as the living, breathing embodiment of the American Dream itself: the mixed race child of a single mother with the audacity of hope. Not once did he take the opportunity to attack his detractors while graciously acknowledging that not all Americans agree with his agenda.

As he worked his way through the long list of his accomplishments during his eight years in office, a profound sadness took over the room.  Just as it happens in a church or in a funeral home when the eulogist recounts the events of a person’s life that brought happiness, the listener cannot avoid recognizing that those days died with the person in the coffin.  Neither the eloquence of the speaker, nor the joy of those happy memories, can shroud the fact that our world is not better off because someone we cared about has died.

About half way through his speech, I recognized that 100% of the things the President was saying were things Donald Trump will attempt to undo during his presidency.  Respect for our fellow man.  Respect for international law.  The importance of a de-nuclearized world.  Opportunity for all.  Denouncing torture.   Integrity of government.  Health care for all.  The richness of being a country of immigrants. With each comment I smiled meekly at all the things that truly are great about our country and how each of these things is fueled by a vibrant, robust belief in the American Dream.  A meek smile is all I could muster because, like being at a funeral, I knew it would be a long time, if ever, that I would feel as good about things as I did remembering  Obama’s vision of our nation.

I suppose someone with more tech abilities than me could create a split screen video of President Obama on the right delivering his point-by-point praise of what makes our country great, while Donald Trump is on the left side mocking each of those points with his narrow minded and destructive plans for our country.

When Joe Biden and Barack Obama embraced at the end of the speech, it was a moment much like closing the coffin at the end of a funeral.  As proud as they must be for what they have accomplished over the last eight years, that knowing look they gave each other spoke volumes about how much our country is to suffer in their absence.

(pause the organ music for a moment, please)

As a teacher, I am confronted daily by the challenges students face in achieving things.  Big things, little things, things that seem small to me, things that students can’t move past.  I often speak about the two options every person has when their challenge involves another person.  As a coach, I talk often about the two options athletes have in becoming the best they can be.  In both cases the options can be summed up like this: make yourself better, or drag your opponent down to your level.  Both methods can be very effective in closing the gap between something you are and something you want to be.

Clearly if the student or the athlete chooses the first option, then both students end up better, regardless of who finishes first.  If they choose the second option, they may “win” but neither of them will be close to what they might have been.

I ask them to think about two mountain climbers tied together with a rope that cannot be cut or detached.  There’s enormous fame awaiting the single climber who first reaches the summit.  As they begin the climb, they realize that at some point one of them is going to win and the other will be second place.  (Think Neil Armstrong and that dude that stepped on the moon second.)

As they near the summit, if one of the climbers is so determined not to be second that he is willing to dig in so that the person tied to him can’t win, the summit will never be reached by either.  Worse yet, one of the climbers can make the fatal mistake of sending both climbers to their death rather than fear the indignity of not winning.

(recue the organ music for the grand finale, please)

I see the legacies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump tied together in the same way as our mountain climbers.  In the balance is the future of our country.  Donald Trump is in the position to build on the greatness of Obama’s America, but it comes at the cost of admitting that greatness.  In everything he says and does, it seems clear that Mr. Trump is willing to toss everyone off the mountain rather than let the American Dream live on.  It’s a long way to the bottom.  I’ll see you there.


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