Last week one of my English classes studied “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. Many people know this poem as “A Dream Deferred.” One of the reasons I love literature and especially poetry is the joy to connect our life to the theme of the work.
The historical message of the poem is rooted in the dream of civil rights and still reflects the struggle we have as a society to fulfill that dream. But I think why the poem has such universal appeal is that Langston Hughes touched on such a deep pain we all face in our lives; dreams deferred.
Here is a moment of honesty. At the moment I am struggling with this concept. I have always had a grand dream of becoming a writer. Ever since fifth grade I have filled notebooks with stories and poems. I won a young authors award in high school. I financed the publishing of a book of my own poems in college, but life just kept pushing the dream to the back burner. Now at the age of 43 it seems that time is running out to achieve that dream. And it hurts. It feels like I will never be able to achieve that goal and it is fading away.
Langston Hughes uses decaying metaphors in the middle of the poem, “ Or fester like a sore—/ And then run?,” to create a visual for the consequence to our lives if we keep pushing our dreams to another day. The dream will have become rotten.
Then mix in the discussion I had with the students about reaching for their dreams, and I think I understand the last line as it pertains to an individual.
A dream deferred destroys you.
I am not suggesting that everyone can accomplish their goals, success is never guaranteed. But we can handle failure as long as we have the opportunity to try. Being a football coach has also been a dream of mine, and I was granted the opportunity. And I failed. It hurts. It hurts bad, but I can deal with it because I was given a chance.
But what is life like when there is no chance? When it seems like nobody cares about your dream or willing to help you with it? Langston uses the line, “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load.” A great simile here to describe the weight of that dream sitting in your heart but no opportunity to achieve it. Then everyday it gets just a little heavier. A day turns into a month, that turns into years, that turns into a life. A life that never reached its true potential.
Let’s get back to my students, your students. School. Are they striving to accomplish their dreams? Or are we asking them to push their dreams aside for better test scores, for grades, or worse for some other time in their life? Do we even know their goals?
I’m not naive enough to say that fostering our students’ dreams will solve all the world’s problems. But, what would our classroom, our schools, our world look like if we were given the opportunity and support to try?
Langston Hughes describes it this way in his poem, “I Dream a World.”