IN THEIR OWN WORDS: High school student rejects the 'American Dream,' aims for personal success

Wednesday, July 4, 2012 | 4:57 p.m. CDT; updated 10:46 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 9, 2012

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

ST. CHARLES — Ryan Stahlschmidt is an 18-year-old senior at St. Charles West High School. After graduating, he has plans to attend MU and major in journalism and political science. He works for the student newspaper, and, in March 2010, he was selected to cover a visit to St. Charles by President Barack Obama. Stahlschmidt said that while he comes from a family that’s not rich but not poor, he wants to achieve more than his parents and be happier with his life than they have been. But his vision of success isn’t what he considers the traditional American Dream — or the "American Nightmare," as he calls it. To him, the white picket fence, house in the suburbs and  family seem more like a trap than a dreamHe tells his story.

My family’s not exactly typical. From a young age, my parents were kind of split up but not split up, so there’s been a lot of stress there going back and forth. I’ve got a brother and a sister, and they have the same experiences I do. I’m not poor, but we don’t have a lot of money, so I definitely have a different perspective than I think a lot of people do in St. Charles because it's a wealthier area. I think I come from a family that understands money a little bit better than most people do in St. Charles.

But all in all, I think I had a good upbringing. My parents aren’t models of success per se, but they definitely instilled good values in me.

My mom doesn’t work right now, and my dad works with computer software and talks people through computer issues. It’s not something that he hates — he likes working with computers — but it’s something that’s stressful for him, and I don’t think it’s where he’d like to be right now. I don’t think their dreams have come to fruition.

Right now my dad is making less than he did two or three years ago, and I know he’s really upset about that. I know he very much wants my two older siblings and I to get an education so we can strive for better than what he has. I say that they aren’t successful because if you ask them if they have achieved the goals that they wanted to, the answer that they would give you is no. So I’d say that them not achieving that is not successful. But them not being successful has made them want me and my siblings to work toward getting educated and being successful ourselves.

I pretty much have everything that I need. I’m fed. I have a car. I work, but the car that was given to me was provided by my dad. I think that’s what a lot of kids want — to be able to live in a decent-sized house, have food every night, be able to go out every once in a while. I have that. I think that I’m at the lower end of the middle class. I think that the middle class is probably shrinking a little bit, but I think it’s still there. So I’m not quite poor, but I’m definitely part of that middle class that still exists.

I work for Midtown Home Improvements. It’s a local company, family owned. I just go door-to-door, talking with people, trying to set up appointments for a free estimate. A big part of my job is being well spoken and friendly to people, just being skillful with people and trying to get what you want out of the conversation. It’s made me stronger working outside of school, but it’s definitely kind of given me an excuse to say, ‘Well, I’m working hard at Midtown, so I don’t have to do my homework.’ It’s put me in a rut that I now have to go back and work myself out of. There’s a lot of kids at St. Charles West High School who are lazy at school but who go to work sometimes eight hours a night. I don’t think they’re necessarily lazy, but that they’re putting their efforts into other places, sometimes the wrong places.

My dad tells me that my work ethic toward school is about where his was at the time, maybe a little higher. He wants me to achieve, to do better than I am. All my teachers tell me the same thing — that I am smarter than what my grades are right now. I need to work on that.  I think the majority of teachers would probably shy away from calling kids lazy, but I think deep down most of them would say (students) are, particularly this generation more so than generations in the past.

Some of the wealthier kids in my school have jobs just because they want a little bit of extra spending money. Maybe their parents are trying to instill a better work ethic in them. I know the poorer kids in my school, they have jobs because probably they have to. If I want to have a car and be able to drive around, I have to have a job to be able to pay for that. The money I’m making isn’t enough to pay for college, and I’m going to quit my job once I go to college. So the money I’m making right now I’m just saving up so I can have a little bit of spending money once I'm at Mizzou. I think a lot of the kids aren’t looking to save up money for college, whether they’re wealthy or they’re poor.

Unfortunately, money is a symbol of status, even at the high school level. If you look at all the popular kids, those are the same people who are the wealthiest kids in the school. Not without exception, but for the most part that’s true. Unfortunately, where your parents’ income bracket is often decides your popularity in high school, how people respond to you. If you come to school dressed in rags, people treat you differently.

As far as kids in lower income brackets being afraid to speak out about where they are, I think that definitely comes into effect. I think that a lot of people aren’t very outspoken about it because they’re ashamed about it. Commercialism in the United States has kind of brought us to that. Everybody’s supposed to dress nicely, wear the nicest clothes, so when a student comes to school not wearing those kinds of things, it’s kind of obvious as to where they might stand in society.

Most people, unless they had huge, significant role models in their lives that pushed them toward something, I think that they’re probably all pretty much where I am now — kind of decided but maybe a little bit on the edge, whereas three or four months ago I was mostly undecided. For our generation there’s so much technology and so much change in the world that there’s a lot more avenues for a possible career choice in the future.

I’ve gone back and forth on a lot of things for what I want to do in college, but in the last year or so I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that I want to go to Mizzou and that I want to major in journalism. I’ll probably go into political science because I like politics a lot. I don’t want to work at some small newspaper writing local stories that don’t have too much relevance. I’d like to go into politics, something with one of the bigger news agencies.

The very day that I heard that (President Obama) was coming to St. Charles, I was called down to the office saying that I was one of the people selected from my school to go see him. I was really excited because I’d been following the campaign that year. I’m part of the newspaper at my school, so it was an interesting experience for me to go and report on that and write a story about it. It felt like I was actually actively involved in what real journalism would be doing.

When I went and saw the president’s speech, it just had an impact on me that I was witnessing something that had a bigger impact than what I’m used to seeing in my life. When I write a story for the newspaper, it’s usually something at the school level or something at the local level, but what was happening there with President Obama reflected what was going on for the entire nation. It just kind of gave me this feeling that things go on at a lot bigger level than just the local level, and it made me feel like I wanted to be a part of that.

I don’t feel like sales has a huge impact on the world. What I want to do with my life is, once I die, I want people to say — or be able to see, at least — that I impacted the world in a positive way. I think politics or journalism is really a good avenue for being able to work toward that.

(Success is) being able to be happy with what I’m doing and being able to say I’ve accomplished something. I don’t think I’m really typical in the fact that I don’t want a family, I don’t want to own a house, own a nice car, all that. I just want to be able to say that each day I go to work, I’m actually accomplishing something that progresses society in a positive way.

My view of the American Dream is kind of cynical, probably partly because of my upbringing and partly because I’m just kind of a realistic thinker. I think the American Dream is something that’s kind of forced on people from the 1950s. It started out after World War II. Everybody was supposed to buy a house, settle down, have a family, just kind of build up the country after World War II. That philosophy has stayed the same throughout time up to modern times, and I think that hasn’t adapted enough to where society is now.

There’s over 300 million people living in the United States, yet we’re still supposed to follow the same philosophy of building the nation’s population and finding a house and settling down and having a huge family. I think that with the universalism of American education now, everybody’s exposed to that dream, so everybody wants to achieve that dream, but in reality, not everybody can get there. ... It’s kind of idealized to the point where it’s not realistic anymore. It’s kind of the ‘American Nightmare.’ I don’t want to fall into the kind of complacency that I see working at my job and going around through suburbia. I’m sure there’s happy people there, but it’s not my definition of being successful.

You look at where the country is right now. The nation as a whole has debt, and you can blame that on various government spending, entitlements, whatever. But the fact of the matter is is that where we are as a country right now is a result of a false American Dream because everybody’s been told that they should own a house, they should have kids. But in reality, with the diversity of jobs that there are in this country, not everybody can achieve that. If you’re a janitor making $30,000 a year, you probably shouldn’t have a big house and multiple kids because there’s no way that you can send them to a good college and educate them.

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