Day of Consideration Takes On American Dream

On Monday, February 11, during the annual Day of Consideration, the Rivers community grappled with questions surrounding the American Dream and worked toward creating ways to make the dream work for all Americans.

The American Dream has never been a one-size-fits-all vision. During the daylong event, students attended workshops and special presentations that addressed the American Dream: what it is, what it should be, and whether the whole concept is still viable. Workshop topics were wide ranging. Upper schoolers attended sessions on income inequality, affordable housing, homelessness, race, gender, immigration, and drug addiction, among others, while middle schoolers created art and performance pieces and explored such topics as food insecurity, dignity, and disability. A gallery of images from the day's events can be found here.

The morning’s keynote speaker was Steven Tejada, an educator, performer, and activist. Tejada presented an excerpt from his one-man show, in which he inhabits several characters based on people he encountered during his South Bronx youth. He first held the audience spellbound as he became “Tito,” a high-school dropout who discourses on the tension between those who leave the neighborhood and those who stay. Tejada then answered questions from the students about his own experience as a person with a foot in two worlds. “The difference between me and some of my friends,” he emphasized, “is not talent or brilliance, but access and opportunity,” the very reason he pursued a career in education.

The students then headed off to their morning workshops, took a quick break for lunch, and returned for a second round of workshops in the afternoon. In Hutton Hall, Muji Karim shared his inspiring story with a group of middle schoolers. Karim had been a college athlete with dreams of turning pro. When that didn’t happen, he took a job in the financial industry after college. “I was living that American dream, on my way to the home, the job, the family, the white picket fence,” he said. But a horrific car accident derailed that particular dream, as he suffered burns and lost both legs as well as a piece of his left hand. At first, the former star athlete struggled with how to define himself. “Everything I had envisioned was gone in one night.” But through hard work and persistence, he eventually reinvented himself as “Muji Blades,” one of the fastest men on prosthetic legs, as well as an activist and advocate on behalf of amputees, burn survivors, and others struggling with the aftermath of serious injuries.

Over in Rivera Hall, students worked on voicing their own American Dream narratives, spending the morning exploring various performance styles and crafting their stories, and the afternoon editing, rehearsing, and performing their stories for the group. In a Campus Center classroom, a representative from Waltham nonprofit Chaplains on the Way described the causes and effects of chronic homelessness, noting that homelessness means not only a loss of material comfort but a loss of such abstract but vital advantages as purpose, security, and privacy.

The second part of the afternoon was given over to a student-led activity, Walk in my Shoes. Students filled out questionnaires responding “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” to such statements as “I live in a community where most of my neighbors are the same race as I am” and “I feel comfortable talking about my race or ethnicity at Rivers” and “I feel like the American Dream is accessible to me.” The questionnaires were collected and redistributed so as to ensure anonymity, and as the statements were read aloud, students walked in silence to the area designated for their answer, creating a dramatic representation of the community’s responses as a whole. Afterward, students debriefed in small groups, discussing which responses surprised them and how the answers might affect their view of the American Dream.

Finally, students, faculty, and staff assembled in Kraft Dining Hall for a closing meeting at which students read aloud written contributions from the community on the topic of “This Is My America.” The remarks – some written by the students reading them and some submitted anonymously – covered topics ranging from implicit bias to privilege to race in America to same-sex marriage to outright patriotism, in ways that were powerful and sometimes emotional.

Through the day’s activities, students gained a greater understanding of the American Dream, as well as a sense that they can contribute to perfecting that dream for all. Upper School coordinator of diversity equity and inclusion Katie Henderson, one of several faculty members who helped organize the day’s activities, said, “Our hope is that students walked away from the Day of Consideration armed with new questions about the complexity of the American experience. Our job now is to help them seek answers to those questions and to help them find and build solutions.”

Before dismissing students, Head of School Ned Parsons shared some final thoughts on the day’s activities. “This Day of Consideration is a reminder that the issues that swirl around the American Dream are incredibly complex, and that the dialogues around these issues are incredibly important,” he said. Don’t be tempted, he cautioned, to reduce those issues to “sound bites.” He recalled once hearing a commencement speaker ask the assembled graduates, “What will you do with what you know?,” concluding with a twist of his own: “I hope you will take what you learned today and do something with it.”