As a young boy, I grew up during the heyday of professional wrestling organizations like the WWF (now WWE) and WCW. Hulk Hogan, with his blonde hair, yellow shirt and yellow tights, encouraged kids to say their prayers and eat their vitamins. He was a larger-than-life figure whose popularity at the time paralleled that of LeBron James today. I certainly admired the Hulkster and he remains one of my favorite wrestlers (despite recent despicable newsworthy incidents), but he isn’t my all-time favorite. That distinction belongs to the late “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
At six foot two and weighing a little over 300 pounds, he was much larger than the average American and he had quite the atypical wrestler physique. The son of a plumber, he initially wanted to be a professional football player, and only tried out to be a professional wrestler after seeing an advertisement in a local newspaper. What he lacked in wrestling ability, he compensated for with his charisma, which he had in spades. Rhodes learned the ropes of professional wrestling so well that he literally put both the WWF and WCW on the map through his endless promoting and inventive gimmick matches. In the process, he niched out a forty year career and made himself, and his family, quite a bit of money. Dusty Rhodes was a self-made man and lived up to the title of “The American Dream.”
As my 11th grade students begin their journey through American literature, I thought it relevant to ask them how they would define the American Dream and if it’s in trouble. All of my classes independently cited one common trait as the most important component of the American Dream--opportunity. My classes were mixed, however, in whether the American Dream is alive and well today.
Perhaps Marianne Cooper is correct in her October article “The Downsizing of the American Dream” in The Atlantic, where she asserts that the American Dream isn’t dead; it’s just different. Americans still believe that hard work leads to success, but instead of buying a new home and starting a family, they are more concerned with holding on to the assets they already have. America’s desire to be debt-free is more important than moving up the financial ladder. This sentiment was echoed by my students, many of whom defined the American Dream as “financial security.”
We currently have a presidential candidate running on the platform of “Making America Great Again.” Although I can’t think of a specific time when America was truly “great” (because minorities have always suffered at the expense of the majority), it seems to me that Americans having a dream of being debt free is a wonderful first step down the yellow brick road of our country’s future prosperity--especially being barely eight years removed from the worst economic catastrophe since The Great Depression.
Like Dusty Rhodes, I want my students to leave Coffee County High School and experience the American Dream. However, if we are going to continue our upswing as a society, it’s crucial this election cycle to elect candidates who will fully fund the education system, from Pre-K through college. This state’s poor leadership has created a $1 billion surplus and is not using it to build a solid foundation for future Tennesseans. This is evidenced by the state facing lawsuits from both rural and urban school districts across the state for underfunding K-12 education.
There’s another $1.4 billion in federal money waiting to enter our state, if our legislature would pass Insure Tennessee--a bill that is supported by Governor Haslam and two-thirds of all Tennesseans. This would help the education system because it will put people to work by creating an estimated 15,000 jobs (which means more tax revenue), and 280,000 more Tennesseans will have access to health insurance, thereby decreasing the state’s health care costs. As a result, more money will be available to: fund a universal Pre-K system, give educators a true cost-of-living wage increase that would put us on a level playing field with the rest of the country, and return funding to its universities--many of which have seen their state funding cut in half over the past fifteen years. The American Dream that my students envision for themselves includes being debt-free, and not paying on student loans for two decades or more.