We tackled a poem during a recent lunchtime English conversation class; Dreams Deferred by Langston Hughes. Not being terribly poetic myself, I stumbled upon it googling “Poems for ESL students”. Poetry can be tough to interpret in a second language amid the tangle of nuance and obscurity. I tip toe around poetry, but looking over this poem it seemed innocuous; straight forward with a vocabulary that would stretch but not break. I wove it into my lesson plan:
A Dream Deferred
By: Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
As the class read the poem, they questioned a few words: fester, sore, crust, sags. Then in turn each finished the poem and sat quietly, starring at their desk – silent. Silence can mask the muffled ticking of an explosive device. Perhaps I have unwittingly picked a topic which no one can relate to, or worse, I wandered into a painful memory, some reminder of a tragic history. At times, silence explodes. Yet I wasn’t willing to drop this topic. I cajoled them, nagged them, to share their dreams.
One man volunteered, “I am a dreamer, sure. I dreamed I would get an education and job, and I did. I dreamed I would get married and have a baby, and I did. I have decided to take a break from dreaming.” Another young man, a recent university graduate, added, “I dream, but only when I have a clear and definite path of how I will accomplish my dream.” I was dumbfounded. Then it struck me.
“Are Hungarians dreamers?” Instantly, one person responded, “No, absolutely not.” The conversation topic emerged. A woman summarized her thoughts, “Why dream when you grow up knowing you have no chance to realize your dreams?” The most tragic consequences of communism are those not seen: the suppression of hope; the dashing of dreams; a failure to believe in a better and different future.
Of course some Hungarians did dream. Too often their dreams led them to a new life in the west – often a terrifying journey fueled by blind faith. Many immigrated to the United States and emerged as renowned scientists, authors, actors, conductors, political leaders with names like Andy Grove, Edward Teller, Joseph Pulitzer, Elie Wiesel, Bela Lugosi, Eugene Ormandy, Tom Lantos.
No one should have to leave home to dream.
I grew up in a country where we are taught to dream. As a child, we discussed examples of the “American Dream” in school and were told anyone could achieve it. We watched Martin Luther King’s speech, I Have a Dream, and used it as a prompt to write our own dreams. Dreaming is our national pastime, an intrinsic part of my being.
Our class discussion turned to Langston Hughes, a black man who died in the 1960s just as black Americans gained some hope of legal equality through the Civil Rights Act, a man whose grandmothers on both sides were slaves. Who had fewer reasons to dream than Langston Hughes? Still he had learned to dream. In another forty years, Americans would witness the improbable ascension of a black man to the United States presidency. Fulfilled dreams fuel dreamers.
People ask me why I live in Hungary, what brought me to Slovakia. It is a complicated question I sometimes struggle with myself. I did not move here to become a blogger, although writing has always been one of my dreams. I live here to make a difference: working with our new employees; developing their skills; and defining individualized paths to career success. Maybe it is a flawed belief, craziness. That’s OK. I hail from a land of crazy dreams.
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