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Class Notes
Chasing the American Dream
(Published November 28, 2005)


A friend of mine has a poster of an Indian holding a handbill labeled "Immigration Law." The Indian asks, "Who are you calling an immigrant, pilgrim?"

Unless you're a Native American, you or your parents (or their parents or other ancestors) immigrated to the United States. This time of year, we celebrate an immigrant festival, the generosity of the Indians to the first white settlers. The pilgrims left the Old World seeking freedom and opportunity, and these ideals became the cornerstones of our republic.

Abraham Lincoln called it "equal privileges in the race of life," or, as he put it another way, "an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence." You might call it the American Dream.

It's too bad today's U.S.A. isn't quite so generous. In fact, the way we've structured American society right now makes it hard for all of our kids to achieve what the historian James Truslow Adams called "not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

We do this in two ways. We create an economy that depends on the existence of an underclass of people in order to function. We rig the market so that those who already have get more, and those who don't have are kept out of the club. Our politicians live in a fantasy world; they genuinely believe that cutting taxes on the income of rich people will increase the wealth of poor people. Right now, Congress is debating bills that will extend lower taxes for investment income (taxed around 15 percent) than for money you make from being employed (taxed around 25 percent). Congress is also pushing to eliminate an inheritance tax, which at present applies only to estates larger than about $1 million.

Combine these two proposals and we see that someone earning $40,000 a year as, say, a policeman, pays $10,000 in taxes, while someone earning $65,000 a year as a landlord from an inherited $2 million apartment building pays less (about $9,750). More plainly, our government is creating a system where the rich are rewarded for having money, and the poor are taxed for working.

I'm not an economist; I'm a teacher. With every lesson I aim for my kids to get as good an education, or better, than at any other high school in the United States, rich or poor. I believe in the dream of fairness and equality. Sometimes when I talk to kids about our democratic ideals, I worry that I'm selling a fairy tale of ability rewarded equally in a country with a hereditary aristocracy (e.g. President Bush II) and a desperate consumerism. If you talk to my students, it's clear that they know what is going on, even if they can't always articulate it. They get the message that they should buy the latest thrill, the Playstation Portable, the Northface jacket, the Carmelo Anthony shoe. They get the message that the game is rigged against them, the decrepit school buildings, unaffordable college tuitions, full price no-insurance health care and rising rents. They get the message that - really - people don't care all that much about them, and they go through the self-destructive behaviors of young fatalists and psuedo-orphans, having babies so that they can have at least one thing of their own, smoking whatever, dropping out of school because for them there isn't the connection between graduating and good jobs.

About 90 percent of my students are poor, or, to use the federal definition, they come from households whose income is low enough to qualify for free or reduced school lunch. At least 50 percent of my students are immigrants. I said that economy depends on an underclass - this is it. We depend on my students and their families to clean our offices at night, to work the machines that dry-clean our shirts, to process in massive factories the chickens we eat, to deliver our furniture and drive our taxis. In terms of dollars, the Civil War has been re-fought and lost, with imported labor and the descendants of slaves, twin heirs of the plantation economy, chained to an $8 per hour service economy. Study after study has shown that in today's America it is harder to get a salaried job if you are black than if you have a criminal record, that you pay more interest on loans if you are colored than not, that families with money tend to hold on to it and families without money tend not to accumulate it.

So why do my kids even bother coming to school? Why do they work all weekend and a lot of nights? They come for the same reasons that immigrants come to America, for the same reasons the pilgrims came, fleeing oppression, trying to create a new life, a new identity and a new prosperity. They come to school because the American Dream is their dream. They know a college education, and the high school diploma required to get one, is a way of leveling the playing field, and they know that even though the odds might be against them, they can still rise.

At Bell, over 90 percent of our graduating class goes on to college. We have about 750 students. At the recent parent-teacher conference day, 352 parents showed up to talk with teachers and find out how their kids are doing; I spoke more Spanish than English with parents, yet I felt more American than ever. The American Dream is alive, in my immigrant students and in my native-born strivers. This year, I'm thankful for a lot of things - my good health, my loving family, the opportunity to be a teacher in our nation's capital. I am also thankful for the hard work and dedication of my students, who prove to me daily that it's possible to build an America better than ever.


Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program ( Please send stories, comments or questions to

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