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In search of lost dreams

| Tuesday, October 9, 2018

It looked like a scroll. A picture from a news-clipping at least 30 years old. The paper had yellowed and crumbled and fallen apart at the edges, crinkled in a thousand different ways. At the center was a photograph showing a young, college-aged man in a basketball uniform, rising up for a fadeaway jumper. My eyes rose from the photograph to the hand that held it out for me to see. Scarred and bruised and dirty. My eyes rose further up to a face that beamed with pride. “That’s me. That right there, that’s me. And guess what? Game-winning shot.” Like an ancient artifact that can’t be exposed to oxygen too long, he tucked the picture back into his pocket, a satisfied smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes.

That man is not a retired basketball legend, his jersey suspended from the rafters in a mega-stadium somewhere. Rather, he is a janitor here at Notre Dame. His hands have grown calloused over time, his back strained from years of hard work, a limp in his left leg. He’ll be quick to tell you he could have been immortalized in sports history if he had stuck with it, that same sparkle in his eyes as he does, but this has become his sepia-toned memory, a possibility that could have been but never played out.

Who is to say who controls and defines our dreams? If the basis of our society is that anyone and everyone should pursue their dreams, how can it be that the dreams of so many get overlooked or overridden or crushed or forgotten? Who has the power to relegate this man’s dream into a sepia-toned memory?

That is not to say that there aren’t inevitable structural and economic problems that provide obstacles to the idea that anyone could do anything and everything that they want or desired. No one, or at least very few, can pick and point at a career and then spontaneously enter it without a cost of some kind. We are in college working for four or more years to attain a degree that is just one step at finding a career. We will have to take classes that we won’t enjoy, sacrifice time and put in the hard work to even be remotely competitive in a world where finding a job is volumes more difficult than it was in the past. In Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates discusses the idea of specialization in his conception of a perfect society. According to Socrates, everyone has a job and vocation that they were meant to be in and should pursue for society to run efficiently and be perfectly just.

Notions of the American Dream challenged this perception with the idea that freedom of opportunity and the ability for all to prosper and move upwards should be available to everyone. The thinking that people were trapped in some concept of a job that they had to accept and pursue had been replaced with an idea that everyone could get ahead if they put in the effort to do so. While this is a noble goal, it is an idealized one. The cliche idea of the American Dream where freedom includes the ability for everyone to prosper and move upwards to a comfortable white picket fence mentality is not a reality for everyone. This is not a novel idea, either. Ian Bremmer, the political scientist and founder of the political think tank Eurasia Group, asserted in an interview with Business Insider that the conditions of the working and middle classes have been unchanging, with no improvement in status, for the last 40 years.

This is not meant to be an article challenging concepts of the American Dream. Rather it is a plea, a rhetorical exercise meant to draw attention to the dreams people have that won’t be recognized because of … what, exactly? Economic structure? The Socratic idea that people have certain vocations from birth? Everyone has a story. Everyone has a dream, even if it is a stained and torn four inch by four inch picture of a fadeaway jumper. And everyone should be able to recognize their dream.

Long after the masses of students coming and going through Hesburgh Library are gone, that janitor will be left, facing the empty 12th floor of Hesburgh. But this is not the reality of what really exists before him. The 12th floor is a basketball court that is impossibly long. He marks distance by the shine of the lights on its face. There are 15 seconds left on the shot clock, a row of 12 bookshelves impossibly high. In that moment, senses become meaningless. He is light as air, a page in one of the books on the shelves that he has cleaned for the last ten years. Gone is the bucket of dirty water on his side, the mop sticking out of it. He sidestepped them an eternity ago, five seconds in a race to get up the court. Around the corner, he dribbles past dust and still space, posting up 13 feet away from the basket. He spins, jumping off his back foot, a fadeaway jumper as the buzzer sounds. The satisfying sleek swish of the net. Victory. He sinks back from his college dream into still life; a sterile row of bookshelves lined in front of him. And at that moment, the pain in his back is gone, the callouses from years of scrubbing shelves and floors disappear. He gives a long, satisfied sigh and saunters over to the elevator, pressing the button for the 13th floor. There’s an empty court waiting for him there. A basketball right in the center waiting to be laid into the net by those scarred, bruised and dirty hands. 15 seconds left on the shot clock. The elevator doors close.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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