I am thrilled that my son, Eli, got into Stuyvesant High School.
And I’m scared s---.
Visiting the tall tower together this fall, listening to the exciting stories of the cheerleader and football player who led us on a tour, it seemed like a no-brainer that Eli, who tests well, would place the school first. He had a shot, and why not dream big?
After all, dreams are catalysts to pull us forward into a place that feels good and natural if we let them. And yet I know from experience how scary it is to set one’s goals high, to place expectations on oneself that will inevitably require a slew of hard work and place one in a competitive realm that could be incredibly stressful. And for what?
Where is it that my son is trying to go, and is it worth it?
I have had to ask myself the same question, repeatedly, as I fall to pieces over trying to do difficult things, like starting a nonprofit to help kids connect through the arts.
The last time my mother was in town, I lost it at the kitchen table.
“I am completely overwhelmed,” I said, between sobs, “and I have no idea what to do about it.”
She shook her head and looked at me, eyes filled with sympathy and exasperation both — this had been the same old refrain for a while.
“I just don’t understand why you have to dream so big,” she said,
I thought when she said it she was crazy, but then I thought, maybe she’s right. Maybe it is better to lower one’s expectations to reasonable easily-achievable goals. After all, how much is too much to expect?
Unfortunately, now it is too late.
It seems my children have already been affected by what I call my “Big Dream Syndrome,” for better or for worse. Eli, at 7 or 8, boldly exclaimed that he wanted to go to Harvard. I remember wondering where in the world he might have gotten the notion, since I don’t recall ever pushing it or even mentioning it. But he had somehow heard it was the best school, and decided that’s where he wanted to go. I remember, even at the time, wondering if, in fact, Harvard is all it is cracked up to be. If, in fact, it would be the best place for his active little brain. If, in fact, he could even get in.
But words people utter, even at a young age, mean something, and so I took it seriously.
Now, as he prepares to accept the opportunity to go to Stuyvesant, and the stories of crazy homework and super-competitive kids abound, I wonder to myself, (with my mother’s voice in my head), “Why does he have to dream so big? Maybe he should go somewhere a little less tough, a place with a few fewer expectations?”
And then I remember we are who we are. I believe there is a path for us, and even if it is a difficult one, we are going to have to follow it to see where it goes. We’re going to have to suffer the trials and tribulations of that particular road because that is the one we’ve been put on. Certainly he is blessed to have the opportunity he’d hoped for, and so he must move forward, fear be damned.
Having a dream, a vision of what one might actually be able to achieve, is important. The size of that dream, I guess, is commensurate with the star you were born under and what surrounds you in support of those dreams, but I believe that people can go incredibly far if only someone looks into their eyes, and tells them that they can.
So I say to my mother, to myself, and to my kids — my birthed ones and the ones I work with in schools — it is okay to dream big. You just have to take it step by step and relax and enjoy it along the way.
And you have to be flexible, as dreams are metaphors not literal to-dos, and if it so happens that one dream doesn’t come true, try, try again. Dare to come up with yet another big dream.
I’ve got my fingers crossed.