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What is the American Dream?
“My green light,” says Jinzhao Wang, 14, “is Harvard.”
The green light at the end of a dock across Long Island Sound symbolized, for Jay Gatsby, the unreachable. He was a rough-edged self-made millionaire from North Dakota, and he longed for the rich and beautiful Daisy Buchanan, who lived there.
“Green color always represents hope,” says Jinzhao.
A NY Times article by Sara Rimer finds that many high school students of diverse nationalities are dicovering the resonance in some of the standard texts that have been taught in American schools for years.
Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was written in 1925. It languished but then flourished again in the 50’s and especially after the Robert Redford film in 1974. It is still required reading at half the high schools in the US.
Although many educators say the best way to engage racially and ethnically diverse students is with books that mirror their lives and culture (certainly it is), many of these students have found in Gatsby a story of wanting to be someone you’re not, desiring to achieve something that’s just beyond reach.
Meredith Elliot, Jinzhao’s teacher, says students at Boston Latin and other urban schools see glimmers of their own evolving identities and dreams in the book.
The students talk about the youthful characters as if they were classmates or celebrities.
“I see Tom as a really mean jock,” says Vimin, a Boston Latin sophomore. “When he was in high school, he was king of the hill. He had it all. He was higher than everyone, even the teachers.”
And Daisy: “She’s turned into an empty person. Like Paris Hilton.”
Vimin’s green light: “…to make my parents proud of me. I’ve always been told to succeed, to take advantage of the opportunities they’ve given me.”
He says The Great Gatsby is “a great tale, especially when you’re from a background such as Mr. Gatsby.”
Students find many lessons in Gatsby’s life and violent death. They talk thoughtfully about the American dream — is it money? Is it education?
Teachers take pains to present the book with a great deal of social and historical context. They say the book crystallizes for many students questions about the materialism of Gatsby’s dream and the possibility of attaining their own versions of it — the costs exacted, especiallly in today’s stratified economy.
Susan Moran, director of the English program at Boston Latin, has been teaching Gatsby for 32 years.
“Here’s Gatsby out of nowhere in this mansion, having these lavish parties and really and truly fulfilling the American dream,” she says. “But it’s a cautionary tale too.”
“The culture sells the American dream so hard and so relentlessly, but they’re wary, and they should be,” she continues. “One reason students appreciate the book is that there is a level of honesty that they value. They need these honest stories to perhaps balance what is otherwise presented as this shining possibility for everyone.”
At Boston Latin, the semester’s reading covers many texts: “The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn” and “Ethan Frome,” of course, but also “The Joy Luck Club” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
Jinzhao reflects, “The Dutch settlers went all the way across the ocean to this new land — America,” she says, referring to Nick Carraway’s bittersweet thoughts at the end of the book. “America appears to the Dutch settlers as Daisy appeared to Gatsby. Gatsby’s hopes and dreams are American ideals. His effort is the real ideal of the American dream.”
“I really want to go to Harvard,” she continues. “But if I don’t get into Harvard, I will not die, right? The journey toward the dream is the most important thing.”
“There is a green light beyond the green light,” she thinks. For Jinzhao that could be China, where she might use a Harvard education to help her country.
sole source: NY Times article by Sara Rimer on 2/17/08. www.nytimes.com
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