The American Dream
by Lauren Stokes
Our costumed interpreter is in the middle of a story about the scrap metal drive she and her World War Two children held just last week when, abruptly, and in a manner entirely unbefitting a war widow of the 1940s, her mouth falls open and she fixes her eyes on my waist. “Why, I’ve never seen one of those before.”
Having no idea what she is talking about but wanting to get the tour back on track as quickly as possible, and of course very conscious that somebody is staring at my waist, I shift uncomfortably and squeak, “Maybe because they didn’t have it in 1944?”
She cranes her neck to keep up with my shifting. “No, no, that pin! The safety pins…and the Canadian flag…however did you think of that?”
I look down past my waist to the Canadian flag made of beaded safety pins that had seemed commonplace five minutes ago but was now apparently so disturbingly clever as to unsettle a war widow. “Oh. Well. You know what they say about us Canadians.”
“And what might that be?”
I make an attempt to smile an enigmatic smile even as I know that the final result will only be tearful. “That every American dreams of being one.”
* * *
It is the first day of seventh grade at the American School of The Hague and our history teacher shows us pictures of her twin sister digging ditches in Rwanda. Ms. Waverly used to live in Rwanda too, and she shows us pictures of the school she built and the well she dug and the children she taught to read. She is Canadian, she says, and so she has a sense of civic duty.
Ms. Waverly asks us to take out our pens and write on an index card our name, our age, our nationality, what we want to be when we grow up, and our personal role model. I write that I might be an American but I still want to go to Rwanda and help the starving children just like my role model, Ms. Waverly, because she is only twenty-five but she has already done so much.
Kyle reads what I have written and shakes his head. “She may have saved those kids in Rwanda by digging wells for them,” he says, pushing his glasses up his nose, “but if she thinks she can save us by telling us about it, she’s wrong.”
By the middle of the school year Ms. Waverly is no longer anyone’s role model. She sits on her swivel chair holding her globe and turning from side to side so that she can scrutinize fifteen bodies each shrinking as far away from the front of the classroom as it can manage. “Can anyone tell me who the Americans are bombing today?”
Nobody can. “They’re bombing Kosovo. Can anyone tell me where Kosovo is? Chris? Why don’t you show me where you think it is?” Chris is the class clown. He saunters to the front of the room, spins the globe, sticks out his finger, and closes his eyes.
“You’re not going to be able to find it with your eyes closed, Chris.”
“And I couldn’t find it very well with my eyes open either.” The braver students manage a laugh or two because this is Chris and Chris is smart and Chris is confident and Chris is funny but then in a moment Ms. Waverly is spitting acid and even Chris isn’t smiling anymore.
“Excuse me, Chris, but I don’t think you ought to be treating your ignorance as a joke. It’s really a pity that you don’t care to rise above the stupidity of your countrymen. It’s typical of Americans to ruin other people’s lives without even knowing about it. That’s not funny. It’s pathetic. People are dying, and it’s your fault. Anyone who thinks otherwise has clearly been brainwashed by the American media conglomerates.” She stops herself, smiles, and proceeds to turn the entire diatribe into a joke. “And so that’s why I’m proud to be a Canadian.” At this point we are expected to laugh, and we do, Melissa chewing on her pen and Kyle fiddling with his glasses and Chris biting his lip and all of us wondering at what point Ms. Waverly had been replaced by her evil twin.
* * *
It’s not that Ms. Waverly’s class was the first time I had ever come in contact with guilt. I was raised on guilt. I learned that if I didn’t eat my peas then African children would starve and that if I wasted paper then Brazilian children would lose their homes in the trees and that if I didn’t turn the lights off a child in China wouldn’t have enough electricity.
I was responsible for everything. If the child in China died because there wasn’t enough electricity to keep her dialysis machine running, I was responsible. I could have stopped my habits of waste and extravagance and general Ugly-Americanism and spared some money to buy electricity for China, but had I? No. So whose fault was it? Mine. An exercise in exaggerated self-importance? Perhaps. But it was also a conviction that I could not get rid of.
Ms. Waverly’s class was the first time that I realized that I could absolve myself of that guilt. Absolution, it turns out, was as easy as becoming Canadian. Canadians were just as consumed by consumption as Americans. Canadians don’t eat their peas and they waste paper and they leave the lights on all night long but nothing is their fault because they are Canadian. They are quiet and unassuming and they keep to themselves, so who would ever think of blaming them?
* * *
On the one-year anniversary of Columbine the principal announces that we are going to start bomb drills that afternoon. These are terrorism drills, not school-shooter drills, but still the timing seems inappropriate. Ms. Waverly cancels class so that we can talk about our feelings. We sprawl across the blue cushions at the back of the room and repeat empty platitudes about Columbine and fear and lessons learned until she becomes exasperated.
“But how would you feel if I told you that your school was the most likely to be bombed by terrorists in all of Europe?” We fall silent, each struggling to formulate a coherent statement about something so close to our own lives. We do not doubt her for a moment; we have an uneasy feeling that it must be true because we are decadent Americans and if anyone deserves to be bombed it is us and why would she lie about something like that anyway?
“Well, I’ll tell you how I feel about it. I certainly wasn’t shocked when I heard about it. It made sense. We are, after all, the American School of The Hague. We’re a very high-profile school. Hundreds of Americans send their children here, Americans working for oil companies and technology companies and consulates and ambassadors. The ambassadors are especially important. Both the Israeli and the American ambassadors have their children here.
“It’s never smart to flaunt being an American, you know. You’ll notice the school doesn’t fly an American flag. I actually always try to wear a Canadian flag in public. Without it, the unobservant might think that I look like an American and I talk like an American and so I must be an American. But with the Canadian flag, they’ll know that I’m Canadian. And nobody would ever hurt a Canadian.” There is some mumbling in the cushions, perhaps about Robbie, our resident Canadian and general nuisance. Kyle whispers to me that he’d gladly hurt Ms. Waverly.
“That’s why I like to say that the American Dream is to be Canadian.”
“She’s wrong,” hisses Kyle, “the American Dream is to Lose Weight.” I laugh a little too loudly. Ms. Waverly’s eyes dart over to the laughter, to our corner where our heads are still bent conspiratorially. “Would you like to share your little joke with the rest of the class, Kyle?”
I look up and I gulp and I shake my head and I try to say no but I know that he has to share. “I said that the American Dream was to Lose Weight.” There is snickering in the corner. Kyle is a pudgy kid, and Chris is probably making some sort of crack about it. I think that I should stand up for Kyle because I’m the one who got him into the whole mess but there is no standing up to Ms. Waverly.
“Oh? That’s funny, Kyle, because I’d say that they’re one and the same.” She laughs as if she has said something funny. But the classroom is silent. Kyle is red and flustered and my eyes are screwed shut so that I can pretend it didn’t happen and even Chris chokes on his laughter thinking that the woman has finally crossed the line.
We practice our terrorism drills for the rest of the afternoon.
* * *
I moved back to America in eighth grade. After eight years of being resented because I was an American, of being blamed and hated and pointed at on the streets, I was back in the one land where being an American is admired.
My Dream was to Be Canadian, but I quickly found out that Chris had been right — the American Dream was to Lose Weight. I knew that my guilt was meaningful, that my guilt came from pain, that it came from oppression, that it came from the tragedy of the human condition. Why couldn’t the Americans — my Americans — see that their guilt was not half so noble, not half so important, not half so difficult as mine? If you want to lose weight in America, you go on a diet. But if you want to be Canadian, you hide your Canadian flag in a dark closet and you sit and you cry and you don’t tell anyone about it because you will only be scoffed at and called a traitor and told that it’s people like you who are ruining the country.
I looked for alternate routes to absolution. I prayed every night to a God who I wasn’t sure that I even believed in. I washed cars for charity and I tried to imagine myself washing the children I had murdered. I read in one of my father’s scholarly journals that Rousseau invented liberal guilt and I spent the next six weeks immersed in The Social Contract, thinking that if I could only understand how it was created I could also understand how to destroy it.
Slowly, surely, in a process that is inevitable when you live in America, my guilt began to lose its edge. Instead of being disgusted by the supermarket’s excesses, I began to consume and even relish them. Instead of trying to hide my American citizenship at any cost, I learned to sing (and sign, in a last-ditch attempt at political correctness) “God Bless the USA.” Instead of passing sleepless nights worrying about the children in Brazil, I spent sleepless nights worrying about myself.
* * *
My Girl Scout troop goes traveling with a troop of Canadian Girl Guides. I talk with the Canadians and I laugh at their anti-American jokes and I wear one of their flags and I sing along with them to their song “The War of 1812”.
So if you come to Washington
Its buildings clean and nice
Bring a pack of matches
And we’ll burn the White House twice!
My friends ask me what the hell I think I’m doing. “Stop it. Stop talking to them and stop laughing with them and more than anything stop singing those horrible songs! You’re an American, you don’t need to suck up to them.”
I want to tell them that I am not sucking up. I want to tell them that I dream of being Canadian because to be Canadian is better than being American, that it is America without America’s baggage, that it is to be rich without the resentment, to be gleeful without the guilt, that it is to have your cake and eat it too and that because of this perhaps it is not so far off the American Dream after all.
I do not say any of this. I smile, I shrug, I finger my beaded Canadian flag and I sigh knowing that it is the closest I will ever be to Canadian.