I just read a piece on Dawn Loggins who was abandoned by her parents, adopted by her school and community, and is now off to Harvard. I must admit the heartwarming tale brought tears to my eyes. Earlier this spring I read about David Boone a homeless student in Cleveland who found his way to a magnet school, excelled and is now on his way to Harvard. I enjoy reading these tales and find them inspirational. They make great reading and always draw me in, so I am not surprised stories like these run every spring.
I worry though about what these feel good tales cover up. While I am happy for the students involved, the reality of life for the homeless, the poor, those who find themselves struggling just to make it to school, is far harsher. These articles tend to present the rough circumstances these individuals faced as a trying but useful crucible that forged their character and helped them achieve later success. The articles do not quite go as far as Andrew Carnegie who wrote in The Gospel of Wealth:
“It is because I know how sweet and happy and pure the home of honest poverty is…and it is for these reasons that from the ranks of the poor so many strong, eminent, self-reliant men have always sprang and always must spring.”
But they seem to tend in that direction. My other concern is that these individual examples of the American Dream being realized, of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, may be taken as establishing a reasonable expectation for all people who struggle on the lower rungs of society. I would hate to think that upon reading these rare success stories one might conclude that the American educational system and social safety net work well, and that government involvement and policy improvement are unnecessary. Just because two students can get from point A to point Z does not mean that those who do not have somehow failed to demonstrate the requisite courage and character. Just because the American educational system produces a couple of miraculous outcomes, does not mean all is well, opportunity is equal, and hard work leads to inevitable triumph.
Thus, while I will continue to enjoy these stories, I will be guilty in my enjoyment knowing that they are merely the gilded exceptions to the dreary reality.