“The American Dream” – perhaps an antiquated term, and perhaps not even possible any more, but still a very powerful concept that could teach us how better to live our own stories.
This week we’ll look at the example of Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
The Nolans are a poor working class family who live in Brooklyn, New York around the turn of the century. The parents, Katie and Johnny, are hardworking, but the dad is an alcoholic and the mom, consequentially, sacrifices many things to just get food on the table.
They thought the key to helping their children live a better life than theirs of industrial and manual labor was education. It may seem like a no-brainer now, but back then when children started factory work at 13 to help their parents pay the bills, school was a luxury. Most kids didn’t finish (or even start) high school, and
Francie struggles 1) because she’s a girl in a time when women aren’t respected, and 2) because she is poor; yet, in spite of those obstacles, Francie is able to overcome them and attend college at the University of Michigan.
No matter what comes her way, Francie maintains her vision of the future, and continues to struggle towards it with all the strength she has (which is quite a bit, as it turns out).
Case 1: Francie’s mother Katie favors her brother Neely because he reminds her of her husband who has been ruined by drink. She imagines that she can make Neely into a better man than his father, and when she has to choose who to send to high school when they can only afford one, she chooses Neely over Francie.
Francie is the one who actually wants to go to school and excels at it. But her mom reasons that she can always go back to it, even if she skips a year right now.
Instead Francie has to work at various jobs, eventually becoming a lead typist making more than the minimum wage. (You go girl!)
Eventually, she saves money and uses some of her savings to attend college classes around her work schedule. Her mother fights her on it because they’re struggling to make money, with a new baby and Neely in school, but she makes her case and works and studies alternately. Still without a high school education, she struggles, but she keeps going anyway.
That’s the path she wanted to follow and she made it happen, even if it meant sacrifices and patience.
Right now, you might be doing something that you don’t absolutely love. And that’s okay. We can’t be where we want to be all the time; we’ve got to take the journey there.
You might be stuck working a minimum wage job that doesn’t have real career potential or very promising connections (not speaking from experience or anything), or you might be stuck taking general education classes that aren’t that fun and aren’t related to what you actually want to do.
Meaning, there are going to be things you don’t like that you have to do to get from point A to B. It might not always be fun or seem like the best path, but you’ve got to stick to it to get to your dreams.
Case 2: Francie loves to read (always an A+ character trait). Katie raised her children reading Shakespeare and the Bible every night, and books remained close to Francie’s heart. As with most girls who love reading, she wanted to become a writer and create stories of her own.
But, as always, there was a mean teacher who graded her harshly. The teacher gave her poor grades for the stories that Francie was proudest of, about her father and her life in poverty, because they weren’t “pretty.” When she wrote flowery, made-up stories that she hated, the teacher gave her good grades, but they didn’t make Francie happy.
Alongside sacrifice and patience, another facet of perseverance is having a tough skin.
The teacher’s negative response to what Francie actually enjoyed stopped her from writing for a while, but eventually she gets back to it and realizes what really matters to her. She burned her old stories in her bitterness, but wishes she hadn’t when her mother finally requests to hear them.
If there’s something that you really want to do, you’ll have to ignore the negativity.
Today, if you want to be a writer like Francie did, everyone will tell you how unfeasible it is. “English majors can’t find jobs,” “What are you going to do with that degree?” “How are you going to make money?” and so on.
But you’ve got to do it anyway. If that’s what’s going to make you happy, you will find a way to keep doing it, and that’s all.
From Francie Nolan, the archetypal rags-to-riches gal, we can kind of see the merits of the so-called “American Dream.” Even if it’s a flawed ideal to strive for, it still encourages us to seek the best (as we do in America). It might be hard to achieve your dreams, but hey, if Francie could, you can too.