Adjusting your dreams for reality, a story for graduates. Almost a valedictorian, almost an engineer, almost a doctor, almost…
Graduation is a time of pomp and circumstance, grand dreams, and potential. This year marks the 20th anniversary since I graduated from high school. Unfortunately, my senior year actually marked the beginning of harsh reality and a quick crush of childhood dreams, like a child madly stepping on bubble wrap.
I graduated third in my class. My mother bought me a cake that said “Valedictorian” on it. She will still insist to this day that I was the valedictorian. I was the valedictorian, until two graduating juniors edged me out. There wasn’t a precedent for this situation, and my father had made enemies of the school board and principal, so the decision was not in my favor. In the grand scheme of things, being valedictorian really doesn’t count for much either way (thanks to my friend Lee Ann for this video from TIME.com about valedictorians after graduation), but at the time it was quite a blow.
I had originally wanted to go to the Air Force Academy. I jumped through all the hoops. I went to the nearby air force base and passed the fitness exam (after my father installed a bar across the top of our fence so I could practice doing pull-ups, because he had read that girls most commonly failed the fitness portion due to not being able to complete a pull-up). I interviewed with my local congressman and obtained a recommendation (one of two given), another requirement to be considered for acceptance. The third hurdle I could not overcome. My math score on the SAT was 6 (six) points below the minimum requirement. I re-took the SAT no less than 4 times. Every single time I made the EXACT same score. My English score improved each time, but the math score stubbornly remained constant. I was not accepted into the Air Force Academy and had to adjust my dream. “Adjusting my dream” is a benign way of putting it. I was devastated. I had been told growing up that I “could be anything I wanted to be”. With the naivety that comes from being an eldest child, I believed it. This was a hard slap in the face, a reality check that I could not, in fact, be anything I wanted to be. I wanted to be an officer in the Air Force Academy. I wanted to parade around under the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains in a smart navy blue academy uniform and earn my degree. It was not to be, I had to adjust my dream.
I attended Texas A&M and started out as an engineering major, but after a low grade in a key class I gave up on engineering. I switched my major to biomedical science and did very well. After graduation I could not decide what area of medicine I was most interested in and decided to take a year to think. I got a job on an emergency certification teaching 7th grade science. I enjoyed teaching and decided to stay another year. The state of Texas had a program that paid for math and science teachers to complete an alternate certification program, which I took advantage of. Several years later, after marriage and my first child, I decided that education was going to be my career. The time for going back to school had expired. This was less of a burst bubble, and more of a slow leak of air. When I was not paying attention, the dream had flat-lined.
My story is ongoing. I have substituted new dreams for those of my youth. I am still in the process of obtaining those goals and the outcome has yet to be determined. But from my previous failures, here is what I have learned and hope to pass on to my students and children.
#1: There are lines that cannot be crossed, no matter how determined or how badly you want to achieve something. My lines were the limits of my academic ability; others may have the obstacle of finances, or any number of impediments. The key is not to let the line stop you, but to find your way around it, over it, under it, or through it. Don’t expect that achieving your goals will be easy, and don’t abandon them when it isn’t. Set a goal firmly in your mind and don’t give it up. If my ultimate goal had been to be a military officer, I could have made it happen with an alternate route. I had a friend who was not accepted to medical school on his first, second, or third attempt. He kept taking the MCAT and kept applying. He did not take no for an answer, and he was finally accepted to a small medical school. I have known people who had no money and had to work through college and take classes as time allowed. They didn’t graduate in 4 years, but they did eventually graduate. My sister is still paying a small fortune in student loans, but she is currently working as a lawyer because her dream was worth the cost. The people who did not succeed and gave up on the their dream often gave up too easily when they encountered the first obstacle.
#2 Let go of unreasonable expectations. I could have swallowed my pride and re-taken the course in which I had scored below the requirement to earn an engineering degree. I could have gotten over my irrational desire to make all A’s and instead learned to be ok with C’s if it meant completing the degree I wanted. I had built up in my mind the kind of student I was, and it held me back when I wasn’t able to fulfill an unrealistic belief. Unreasonable expectations are worse than no expectations. They hold you back- let them go.
#3 Don’t lose your dreams in the day-to-day flow of life. Life is busy. I am often struck by the mythological story of the lotus-eaters that captured men by feeding them lotus flowers, which made them dream and lose track of time.
“How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream!
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
To hear each other’s whisper’d speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day…” an excerpt from “The Lotos-Eaters” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
I had planned on going back to school, but had to change my plans when I realized it was not feasible with a family. I made choices without really thinking about them. Not making a decision to pursue a dream is still making a decision. I have new goals now centered around my career in education. I have learned to make a conscious effort to keep my goals forefront by writing them down (New Year’s is actually a great time to re-evaluate and re-focus). I have a mental map of what I need to do and “stepping stones” that need to be placed now, in the current moment, to make a path in the direction of my ultimate goals- instead of just waiting and hoping that the right situation arises.
Congratulations, Class of 2017! Graduation is a time for all of us to reflect on our youthful dreams and compare them to where we are now. Eighteen is a fresh age for starting out on the beginning of a journey of accomplishments, but honestly as long as we still are above this Earth rather than under it, we have the opportunity to set goals and reach for the stars. You may have to adjust your dreams for reality, but that’s ok. Set a goal firmly in your mind: don’t let go of it with the first obstacle, do let go of unreasonable expectations that get in the way of what you really want, and don’t lose sight of your dream in the day-to-day busyness of life. Make the adjustments, don’t settle for almost.