Every year I speak to thousands of students in public and private schools across the country. At the end of the day, when I walk out the front door and climb back into my rental car, I always have a bit more faith that the future is in pretty good hands.
When the venue is an elementary school, I like to begin by inviting a few students to stand and share what they hope to be when they grow up. Some professions routinely make the list, no matter the age group or part of the country I’m in.
I always meet future teachers, firemen and veterinarians — or, in some hilariously mispronounced cases, vegetarians. I also get fist bumps from some aspiring future NFL or NBA stars.
There are usually a few surprises, too. Last week, one fourth-grader said he wanted to be a molecular biologist and another said she had plans to be a pediatric surgeon. “Well, of course you do,” I said. “I believe.”
No matter the size of the dream, I offer my complete, unconditional support.
They want to be a basketball player? I ask if they can dunk yet and their eyes light up that I would think it could even be possible.
They dream of being a professional ballet dancer? I put a finger on my head and do a couple of pirouettes to show off my mad skills. When they stop laughing, they suggest I never do that in public again.
If a girl dreams of being a pop star, she’s just begging me to snap my fingers like Beyonce, stick out my hip and quip, “You go, girl.”
While their classmates cheer their answers with childlike gusto, teachers and administrators nod and applaud politely, even at the most outlandish plans. If the adults find the answers unrealistic or too silly, they hide their feelings pretty well.
On a recent visit, one teacher told a child to “be realistic.” She seemed to brag that in all her years in education, she’d only known a couple of students who’d gone on to play professional sports at any level. She was then overheard by the children telling a colleague how disappointed she was that the fourth-graders hadn’t yet moved on to considering other more reasonable professions.
I don’t know who was more disappointed — the students or me.
Certainly, there is wisdom in encouraging kids to seek as much education as possible and to develop a wide variety of skills. Then, if the young man with NBA dreams tops out at 5-foot-3 with no hand-eye coordination, he’s got a solid backup plan. But who are we to tell that little all-star he needs to “be realistic”?
The world is full of successful adults who were allowed to dream much bigger than their shoe size. I’m a full-time writer and New York Times best-selling novelist, in large part because a handful of teachers through the years looked me in the eye and said, “I believe in you.”
My very first book, a collection of awful poetry drenched in teen angst, was available in bookstores when I was just 17 because teachers believed the poems were good enough to be published and my mother said, “Why not?” With faithful adults in my corner, I beat the streets and set up wholesale accounts.
If I could have had a private moment with that doubting, downer educator, I would remind her that the harsh world is going to come at those youngsters fast enough. What’s her rush?
Experience tells us the odds are stacked against every elementary school in America pumping out a dozen Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. Still, what gives us the right to dim those colorful dreams? Life circumstances, DNA, injuries, bad luck and a bucket full of unforeseen trials will probably send that message soon enough.
As long as we can believe in their super-sized dreams, shouldn’t we?
I’ve seen firsthand how many children come from homes where flesh and blood have little faith in their kids’ ability to succeed. I’ve met little ones who first learned the word “stupid” when their own parents used it against them.
Don’t they deserve someone to believe anything is possible?
Don’t they deserve a chance to dream big?
Next time you hear a child say they want to be a Mars astronaut, an Olympian or a professional skateboarder, try looking them in the eye and offering an unequivocal, “I believe.”
They deserve nothing less.
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