It's my 30th birthday today -- oh my! -- and as I reflect on this point on my life, I keep coming back to one thing: the concept of dreams. No, I don't mean fuzzy dreams in our sleep, but our life dreams -- dreams that guide us, inspire us, keep us on the right moral path. I have been thinking a lot about dreams lately because the last few months, I have had the great fortunate of being a part of two different sides of dreams, in different eras, and in different ways.
On one hand, each day, I write about Harlem Prep: a community school in Harlem, New York, from 1967 to 1974, that was all about supporting dreams. I've been learning about the dreams of these "students" -- now adults and community elders who continue to add love to those around them, while others, who have gone too soon, made their own indelible imprints on the world. These former students had all been pushed out of school and onto the streets -- "dropouts" and "unfit for learning" they were referred to as. Yet, the remarkable teachers and administrators at Harlem Prep rightfully saw through this slander and prejudice, and during the school's seven years of existence, more than 700 young people who had been out of school had now crossed the graduation stage and their dreams were re-set into motion.
Having the opportunity to tell this unknown story about the beautiful people at this school -- about so many dreams -- is beyond humbling. It was the dream of a better life that kept every student going despite unfathomable hardship and injustice. As the story of Harlem Prep proves, dreams are immensely powerful. They are innate. They are everywhere. They are everyone.
On other days, when I am not writing, I have been working with first year community college students -- and am the witness of their powerful dreams, as well ... but in a slightly different way. Their dreams are still in progress. Their dreams have yet to be fulfilled. Their dreams, on a granular level, are in my hands (and those of educators throughout the college). To be a part of someone's life in that capacity -- to have the agency to help a young person reach his or her dreams -- is overwhelming. I feel that gravitas when I speak with alumni who had their dreams rescued by caring educators, and I feel it deep in my veins when I, myself, am trying to do the same for the young people who look to me for inspiration and guidance (or, perhaps, just a little help on an essay). These moments are sacred and they are special, and each day I am humbled to be a position where I can make an impact on someone's dream.
And then, finally, I have been thinking about my dreams -- not the dreams of past individuals or the dreams of students -- but my dreams, at this sort-of-young-but-not-that-young point in my life. I have many dreams that ebb and flow on a never ending basis, involving many people, and I so deeply hope that I have the opportunity to reach some of them so that I can help others reach theirs.
In all this thinking about dreams -- and in reflecting on my 30 years of life and the (hopefully) many more years ahead -- I realized that dreams remain one of this world's most compelling commodities (and something that cannot be bought or sold). They are not just "for kids" or a silly vestige of our younger selves. And they are not to discarded, or to be thought of lightly. Conversely, they are our moral compass. Real dreams are soaked in goodness; they invoke humility and kindness. In my opinion we must reclaim our dreams or reach for new ones, for they are what make us human. They are what make us whole. When we lose sight of our dreams -- and that includes our dreams for others, perhaps the most powerful dreams of all -- we lose ourselves. When we stop dreaming, we stop living -- we are stopped from being the best that we can be.
Over the course of my life thus far where I have lived in three very different places (and four if you count Cape Town, South Africa!), I have never met a person -- a child, an adolescent, an adult, an elder -- who doesn't have some sort of dream: a dream for themselves, a dream for others, a dream for the world. Dreams are the world's currency. If kindness is (or, should be, at least) the world's universal language, and love the building block of all human life, then dreams are the way we can understand and emphasize with each other. Every person on Earth has dreams -- and we, as a society, and as an individuals, must be in the business of supporting these dreams. And by dreams, I do not mean goals; they are related, but not the same. A goal is "an aim or purpose of action." A dream, however, is a "vision" for life: for what we hope for, how we strive to live, for how we believe the world (and people in it) should be. Like the more ethereal parts of life, dreams are deeply embedded in our souls. We cannot always describe them accurately, but we can feel them move every fiber of our body when they are present.
Thus, dreams come in all shapes and sizes, big and small, and motivate people in vastly different -- but all equally valid -- ways. Some people help others reach their dreams, like teachers or social workers. Some people sustain dreams or make them more accessible, like accountants, lawyers, or city planners. Some people even save or rescue dreams, such as doctors or firefighters. Some people build dreams (and impact other peoples' dreams along the way), like entrepreneurs and business folks. And, all people protect the dreams of family and friends -- and have their own.
Ultimately, when we are young we are told to "reach for our dreams," perhaps playfully, and not too seriously. But when we are older, we are told to table our dreams, to cast them aside as impossible fantasy. To be sure, dreams do not always come true ... perhaps they usually do not. I am not naive to the harsh reality that our circumstances affect our ability to reach our dreams: our finances, our abilities (or lack thereof), systemic inequality in countless facets of society, or just plain bad luck. After all, life can be really hard (and as a result, we must cherish the small moments of joy each day). But, just because our dreams do not always come true as we envisioned them, does not mean we should stop dreaming. In my (at times) tumultuous journey to a Ph.D., my dreams have seemingly been shattered or placed out of reach -- or so I thought. And, surely, some of these dreams have had to be adjusted as I have gotten older and the realities of adulthood have taken hold. Others were not dreams at all, more professional goals or personal aims. But to dream, to really dream, is an action -- a way of being -- that can never be taken away if we so choose. Dreams keeps me going. They gives me hope. They fill me with promise, unclaimed or not.
Coming full circle, my goal -- no, my dream -- for the next 30 years of my life is to try and help others' dreams come true. Those of my parents, my wife-to-be, my nephews and brother, my family, my friends, and hopefully, if I can reach my goal of being a professor, of my future students. After 30 years of living, I certainly do not have any more insight on understanding what life is about or the secret to happiness or to any of life's biggest questions. (Sometimes I feel like I know less each year!) But I do know that like love, like kindness, life selflessness, dreams -- ours and others -- play at least a partial role in figuring it all out.
I've reached 30, and I am so, so very thankful for more than I can describe. And, although I've certainly had setbacks on this life journey so far, I realize that I have to keep dreaming. I hope you -- no matter what -- keep dreaming, too.
With love and endless gratitude,