Parents, children, and grandparents were all shuffling into their seats to prepare for what was to be one of the most important days in their lives. All those long two-hour commutes, hundreds of dollars that went into textbooks, and countless tears shed have all led up to this moment.
I watched my brother sitting in the center of the arena. His shoulders looked tense as usual whenever he got nervous. His dark hair was gelled back for once, and his shy smile stood out among all the faces in his row. My mother was commenting on that day, about how much he looked like a spitting image of her father.
Behind us, I heard two ladies conversing. One said to the other, “Michael already has a job lined up for him during the summer. He was recommended by his best friend whose dad is in charge of recruitment. He’s clearly worked so hard.”
Once the ceremony began, students were asked to stand up for various achievements.
“33 percent of our graduating class has served in the armed forces and bravely committed to their duties while simultaneously balancing their studies. May all of these students rise to be commended for their achievements?”
Almost half of the student body stands up, all of them repping their uniforms and some of them holding their children in their arms. One by one, the MC calls out all the elected representatives of his senior class, the highest-scoring students, the club leaders, and finally, the student athletes. Mom and Dad roared with pride once they got a glimpse of his figure in the distance. He glanced back at us to make sure we were paying attention.
The valedictorian’s speech was faded in the distance, “We made it this far and there’s absolutely nothing that can stop us from achieving our biggest dreams of contributing to society. We are all blessed to live in a country that values its youth.”
After he made this statement, I thought to myself, “But, not all of us have the option to claim our deepest aspirations.” This was a fact that my brother, cousins, and I had to tragically discover as each of us decided to apply to the very institutions that were meant to help us realize our “dreams.” The memory of my parents sitting me and my brother down in the kitchen to tell us that our dreams have limits is painted clearly in my mind. I’m sure any family would have a number of uncomfortable discussions in their lives, but this one was the type of unique discussion that only certain groups of people can have.
My family’s confession was that no matter how hard my brother and I work in school, how many people we network with, or how well we behave as inhabitants of a country — not citizens, not residents, just inhabitants — we only have a set number of choices regarding what we can aspire to be. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
“You did nothing wrong… You did nothing wrong…” was the same phrase that my parents and aunts and uncles have had to repeat to us over and over again.
The whole crowd created an uproar of excitement after the valedictorian’s speech. My mom and dad tried to match their happiness, but I looked down to see my brother’s body tense up even more. It’s almost as though we felt a telepathic connection in that moment, both knowing that this wasn’t the start of his journey toward success, but merely a continuation of our struggles. We were both giving our parents a facade of happiness to make them feel like their sacrifices really meant something.
Once the announcer called my brother’s name, my mom and dad, and his then-girlfriend jumped out of their seats and snapped as many photos as they possibly could in a matter of the 30 seconds that it took for him to walk on the stage and pick up his diploma. In those 30 seconds, all mom and dad could see was their eldest child achieving his dreams.
In those 30 seconds, all I could see were scenes of my brother sitting on the couch every day after school, routinely watching CSI reruns, crime case documentaries, and reading books on crime scene investigations, dreaming of someday being a police officer. Dreams that were meaningless, like the piece of paper he held in his hands. It tried to make people like us buy into the false reality that we could actually contribute to our society.
“We did nothing wrong… We did nothing wrong…” to deserve a fate of never-ending confusion. It’s ironic that we are called DREAMers when our dreams, in fact, have the most limits.