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Delusions of Grandeur
This piece began as an English project, but now has become much more personal. It was important to me that I tried to get across how I uniquely felt about the Dream's influence on my own way of thinking as a child and now as a teen. The American Dream, to me, is an idealized form of existence that only exacerbates self-doubt, depression, and anxiety in me and other kids like me.
I’m back in my kindergarten classroom. I can tell because of the distinct smell of waxy crayons and the familiar humidity created by two dozen miniature human bodies. The classroom is nondescript and blurry, but incredibly clear in its odd lighting, clashing colors, and weird angles of the desk. I can’t see the face of my teacher or my classmates. I’m working on some kind of a coloring page, using dried-up, crusty Prang markers from my jelly-colored pencil case. A terribly distorted illustration of a girl with thick braids, thick cheeks, and thick freckles smiles viciously up at me. I’m coloring her hair red with my marker instead of following the directions on the sheet.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” The cartoon asks me. I don’t answer her, focusing instead on getting my chubby hand to keep the red ink within the lines. She wants me to color in one of the other illustrations on the page instead: a boy in a firefighter costume, a girl wearing a stethoscope, a character with no specific gender wearing a chef hat and stirring a giant pot, and a boy wearing a suit with the American flag waving behind him. For some reason the girl’s braids are more interesting to me.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” She repeats, this time annoyed. I study the pictures again, stressed. The firefighter is laughing at me, the doctor turning away in disgust, the chef remaining nondescript in personality, and the President waving heartily. I don’t want to be any of them. I color the President’s suit purple and pink, and since there is no flesh tone marker, give him lime green skin.
“You want to be president of the United States?” the cartoon cackles.
“No,” I say.
“Too bad.” The cartoon has suddenly morphed into a portrait of Thomas Jefferson. I look at the marker in my hand. It has become a mechanical pencil, and my hand has grown and thinned out, and I realize that I’m in eighth grade. The illustrations are gone, replaced by academic text in Times New Roman on the sleek skin-like pages of a fresh textbook: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
“Why’d you capitalize them?” I ask, referring to certain unalienable rights.
“Capitalism,” answers a portrait of Adam Smith on the opposite page.
“Because they’re important,” Jefferson says, ignoring him. “What’s important to you?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“You have to,” says the textbook.
“Well, I don’t.”
“What brings you Happiness?”
I glare at Thomas Jefferson, with his stupid bird-nest hair and waxy crooked mouth, and his beady sexist eyes glare back at me.
“I like singing, I like acting,” I say. “I like writing, drawing.”
“Can’t make money that way!” Adam Smith cackles. “Be a lawyer, be a dentist, be a surgeon.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Then find a husband, and you’ll be fine,” Jefferson says.
I start to protest, but I’m interrupted when the teacher walks over and slams my textbook shut on my desk, crushing Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith in its bulk.
“Don’t listen to them,” she says. “What you should be thinking about is college.”
I can’t pull my eyes from the textbook. Sticky red blood oozes out of the pages Jefferson and Smith were sandwiched between.
“But I’m in eighth grade.”
“Start looking into schools. With your test scores, you should be browsing among the best of the best.” The teacher starts to deal me a deck of cards. When I flip them face-up, I see that each card has a different college on it. But I can’t read any of the names or see any of the logos. The only legible text on the cards are random 5-digit numbers.
“What’s this?” I ask, holding one up. “49,678?”
“Tuition for a year. But that’s just if you live in-state.” The teacher cocks her head and smiles, but the smile is oddly wide and misshapen, like a cutout paper snowflake. “What are you going to go to school for?”
“I’m in eighth grade,” I repeat, horrified. I don’t know what to say. “I like writing and art.”
“Honey, those don’t make any money. Do you have any other skills?”
The lights go off suddenly, and I’m shrouded in darkness. I run to find the lightswitch but when my hands reach the wall it feels sodden, earthy, and bare. When my eyes begin to adjust to the dark I look up and see that I’m in the very bottom of a deep hole. I glance about and find that I am accompanied by one other object: a radio.
I sit in the middle of the circular dirt floor and turn it on. It buzzes for a moment as it tries to find a clear frequency, then crackles to life with the voice of a man I’m not familiar with yet. He is nasal and speaks from the back of his throat, and his tone leaves a sickening feeling deep within my gut. He is announcing his candidacy for President.
“When you’re a star… they let you do it… grab ‘em…" The radio spits out sentences as if it’s choking on its own words. “-Make America great again.”
I throw the radio against the wall, and it smashes into pieces, but his voice continues to reverberate through the pit. I squeeze my eyes shut and plug my ears to hope that everything will just sink away.
In the back of my mind, through the wet din of political chatter still seeping through my ears, I hear a Broadway song playing softly. Singing, on top of rap, on top of orchestra… is that Hamilton? I open my eyes and I’m at a play. But, strangely, the play is not Hamilton. While the musical’s soundtrack still plays in the background, the set is that of a show called Superior Donuts. The main characters of the play — a son of Polish immigrants and a young black man — are posed onstage just staring at me. The young black man holds a book of poems: an anthology of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen. He launches into a monologue that I can’t totally make out over the Hamilton still being recited in my head.
“We need to believe, to trust, like little kids, that someone wants what's best for us. That someone's looking out for us, that someone loves us. Do they? No, they lie to us.” The monologue isn’t even from Superior Donuts. It’s from another musical called Assassins. "...And when we realize they're lying, really realize it in our gut, then we get scared. Then we get terrified, like children waking in the dark, we don't know where we are.”
Suddenly, the play is interrupted by that man’s horrible voice again, blasting through speakers hidden in the wings backstage. “They are so dishonest. Fake news. They’re fake news media-”
The cast erupts into death-defying screams and the curtain drops onstage. The house lights come up in the theatre, unusually bright, so that I sit disoriented for a moment in blinded silence. I stand up and try to move towards the aisle to leave, but there are so many other people also standing from their seats that I’m jostled and pinned and prevented from escape. I look around and notice, for the first time, that every audience member is a caricature of someone I know from school, all wearing red robes and graduation caps. I look down at myself and I am dressed the same way.
I conclude two things: high school ended before I even realized it began, and I have no idea where to go from here. I follow the flowing red sea as my fellow seniors migrate to the back of the theatre, towards the two exits, which each have a label above the door. I can’t read the signs from this far away, so I don’t know which line to get into. As I’m pushed up the steps on all sides, the taller frames of the other graduates prevent me from being able to read the signs as we approach them. Just before I’m pushed through the dark doorway, I’m able to catch what each one says: Hopes and Dreams. I am forced into Dreams.
I walk right into my kindergarten classroom.
I am confused. I thought maybe I would be walking into my first job, or appearing at my wedding or the birth of my first child or the purchasing of my first house. But, instead, I’m in the kindergarten classroom again. I smell the crayons, paste, and grubby plastic toys. But it looks different this time. Not as distorted. And, for some reason, I’m a lot taller.
I feel someone at my leg and I look down. A young girl with two red braids is tapping my thigh to get my attention. I kneel so we’re roughly eye level and ask her what she needs.
“I don’t get it,” she says. She holds up her assignment, a blank coloring page with a few smiling characters all dressed up according to their specific careers. She hasn’t colored in any of them, even though I’m vaguely aware of the fact she and her classmates have been working on this project for over thirty minutes already.
“I don’t get it either,” I answer. She glares at me and storms away on her chubby child legs.
Another child’s voice shouts my name and I turn around to help him. This boy is meager and doe-eyed and wears a Captain America shirt. I pull up a chair next to him and glance at his paper — contrary to the instructions, he’s colored in all of the characters on the sheet and even drew in a few extra people to represent different careers.
“I want to be everything when I grow up,” he says. He pauses, pursing his lips. “But I can’t.”
“I’m bad at tests, and my mom says college is too much money.”
“You’re in Kindergarten,” I say. “Don’t worry about that yet.”
“Didn’t you worry about it when you were little?”
I smile and shake my head. “I worried about it so much I forgot to want anything. What do you want?”
“I said. I want to be everything.”
“Well, I want you to be everything. I’ll look out for you.”
“Are you lying?”
“I don’t know.”
I wake up in a cold sweat, the leftovers of an awful dream sitting like festering residue in the back of my throat. I sit up in bed and glance at the digital clock that anxiously flashes the hour: 3:08 AM. I sense a heavy body breathing slowly beside me: my husband. The bad dream — or nightmare, what have you — is already disappearing into the archives of the subconscious, leaving only vague paranoia and discomfort.
The room is freezing, but I’m too freaked out by the sleep cycle that I can’t curl up and go back to sleep, so I shuffle into the hall and check on the kids in their bedroom. Thomas and Adam are in their bunks, each tiny form softly rising and falling with their breaths beneath the duvets.
For some reason, I feel the urge to go downstairs, and once I’m on the ground floor, I find myself drawn to the kitchen. The bad dream is coming back in bits and pieces, just a snippet of a face or a voice here and there, and reality still feels slightly distorted. I have a strange moment of deja vu when I flick on the lights. I pour myself a glass of water and sip on it while I stare out the window at the dark and tranquil street.
I assume the bad sleep is from anxiety, what with impending parent-teacher conferences tomorrow afternoon and the cutbacks my husband has been trying so hard to avoid making at the office. The 3 AM solemnity of the front lawn through the window sparks a brief moment of clarity. A wave of feeling — relief or regret, I don’t know — washes over me when I realize how much I care about the trimness of that lawn. About how important it is that it precisely matches the trimness of the neighbors’ lawn. I glance down at the pristine crystal cup in my hand and set it back down on the marble counter, irritated by the pointlessness of its beauty when we never have guests over anyway. A tinny voice floats out of the recesses of my thoughts.
What brings you Happiness?
The voice becomes a droning pulse in my temples and I sit down at the island in the middle of the kitchen. The boys have assignments due and I need to remember to take them to sports practice. The husband is so stressed out about his responsibilities at the company that I need to remember to give him plenty of alone time when he gets home from work. The garden needs watering and the dogs need walking and I told the neighbor I’d go to her elitist baby shower. I need to remember to do all of these things.
What brings you Happiness?
I need to remember, but I can’t.