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To Pursue Dreams
I was born and raised in a rural community in the Appalachian Mountains. Most of the local people work at farms, factories, or mills. Education is not deemed terribly important, since even a high school education is of little practical value. My mom dropped out of high school because she was pregnant, and has been a factory seamstress for fifty years. My father dropped out after 8th grade because his own father ran out on his family, leaving him to have to work. He has been a welder in a steel mill my whole life. They expected that my scholastic career would be roughly similar to theirs. My own goals, however, were much higher: I wanted to go to college -- and not just any college. I wanted to go to a really good one. I thought that a higher education was my ticket to a better life than my parents had, and so I focused on college with a driven passion.
My "dream" schools included the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Dartmouth, and Brown. I made lists and charts, and papered the walls of my room with pictures and statistics of these four institutions. The evening I received my SAT score (1300), my parents came home from work and I ran out to tell them that I might be able to get into one of my top choices for college. Though my head was in the clouds, my parents had their feet very firmly planted on the ground. They asked me if I knew what kind of kids went to "those" schools. Hesitating, I said, "...not really." My mother explained how the kids who went to "those" schools were wealthy and well-educated, with lots of "connections" that would help them get into college. She told me that I was neither rich nor terribly smart, and thus should consider schools that were "more my speed".
I got applications for UNC-Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, and UNC-Asheville the next day. My father looked only at the UNC-Asheville booklet and said that it looked nice. My mother agreed, saying that I had finally chosen one school that I possibly could attend "in reality." My mother wouldn't even read the application booklet for Penn. My father snorted angrily if I so much as mentioned Northwestern. I was crushed. I began to wonder if my dream schools were just that: a fanciful dream.
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I filled out applications to the three local schools and my four dream schools. I carefully wrote out personal statements and lists of achievements to accompany each. I typed each application, and stacked all seven on the stereo in my room to be mailed in the next few days. With each passing day, I wondered more and more if my parents were correct. Maybe I wasn't like the students who attended Penn and Northwestern. Maybe I couldn't survive there. Maybe I couldn't pay for it and would be forced to come home a failure (a scenario that my mother constructed and reminded me of often).
Over the next week, I mailed three applications: those to the local schools. I saved myself the grief and anxiety of waiting for responses from my dream schools; I let my dreams lie on the stereo. In the fall, I went to UNC-Chapel Hill, where I would pursue my collegiate education. Although I loved UNC -- it was all I could have asked for in a university -- I still regretted that I gave up on myself. I regretted considerably that I hadn't been accepted to Penn; I regretted much more that I hadn't the faith in myself even to apply.
On a recent Saturday, my mother asked me to paint the porch. I had completed about half the job when she came outside to show me how to paint the banisters. I told her that I was planning to apply to graduate school at Penn -- maybe even Harvard -- in the fall. She appeared not to hear me, save for a slight, but painfully noticeable, smirk. I asked her if she would like to look at my latest books of statistics and walls papered with pictures, facts, and figures. She smirked once more, scoffed, and repeated the phrase I had unsuccessfully tried to forget for four years: "Let's get back to reality." Then she rather bluntly told me to get back to painting, and left me to my own bitter thoughts. I painted with an inspired fury which left a distinctive mark on our banisters that I imagine greatly resembles the nearly-indelible impression she left on my soul four years earlier.
But I'm not the same person today that I was before college. The years and education have taught me much. My parents no longer do my thinking for me. I have faith in myself and my abilities. I no longer acknowledge the validity of the distinction my parents drew between those students who are worthy of dreams and those who are not. As to which schools will accept me, I cannot say. But I can decide whether I pursue my dreams or abandon them. This time, all of my dreams will at least make it to the mail carrier.