Not That Langston Hughes Poem  

Not That Langston Hughes Poem  

image: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Every Career Day, a myriad of parents and employed adults who want a day off from work kind enough to stop by, stand in front of a classroom of adolescents on the precipice of adulthood and tell them what they do. “I’m a chef.” “A stay at home mom.” “A gardener.” For twenty minutes they give a spiel about why their job is great and why you should consider it. Then the dreaded question part of the presentation. A kid in the class raises their hand and says, “Is this always what you wanted to do?” The answer is almost always “no.”

“What did you want to be when you were a kid?”

“A fashion designer.” “An astronaut.” “President.”

“What happened? Why aren’t you a ____?”

“I don’t know. Life got in the way, I guess.”

A look of contemplation follows. The speaker seems to wonder to themselves why they hadn’t accomplished all their hopes and dreams. The room stays silent because so many questions hang in the air that have no answers. You can feel the tension in the room until the teacher interrupts to thank that person for their time. No one says it, but that moment changed everyone in the room.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Briana is a junior in high school. She wants to be a star on Broadway; a leading lady of the theatre. She dreams of attending the Tisch School of Arts at NYU. She looks at other colleges as a formality because she only plans on going to NYU. She cannot contain her excitement.

“What’s your plan B, Briana?”

“I don’t have one.”

“You should. You never know what could happen.”

“I hadn’t planned on things not working out…I don’t like to think like that.”

“Always have a plan B. Life doesn’t work the way we want. Be prepared for that.”

“Um okay.”

The answer is in almost every person I meet.

Briana decides her plan B; a writer. Writing is the only thing she is good at besides singing and acting. She thinks it can make her happy if Broadway doesn’t work out. She still thinks it will, but she’s less confident than before. She can thank her guidance counselor for that.

“Did you decide your Plan B?”

“I’m going to be a writer.”

“A writer? That doesn’t pay well.”

“I-I mean it’s the only other thing I’m good at.”

“Maybe you should be a teacher. You can teach writing.”

“I don’t want to be a teacher. Besides, teachers don’t make money.”

“Yeah, but you’ll have a job. That’s better than nothing.”

“Um okay.”

A dream deferred is a story to tell your children, a memory to bitterly reminisce, a fantasy that comes at night.

Briana doesn’t have a plan. She doesn’t know what to do with her life. Plan A will surely never work. Plan B is less likely. She is not good at anything else. She doesn’t know what to do now since her dreams are unrealistic.

“So you want to be a teacher?”

“Not really. But it’s practical…it’s realistic.”

“There are no jobs for teachers. You won’t get work.”

“What else can I do?”

“Why not be a lawyer? Doctor? You’re smart.”

“Um okay.”

A dream deferred is a silent cry for help, a warning, a wakeup call.

Briana is a senior in high school applying to colleges. She has good SAT scores, well-written essays, and strong recommendation letters. She’s not sure what to major in so she applies to whatever schools her parents tell her to. She is lost and confused. She is worried those feelings won’t go away.

“Where did you decide to apply?”

“I sent my application to a bunch of places.”

“Give me names.”

“Harvard, NYU, Stanford, Stony Brook, Baruch, MIT.”

“Why did you choose those schools?”

“I googled which were best. I don’t know what to study though.”

“You can figure that out later.”

“Um okay.”

It’s a lesson for those of us who like to keep our necks so far up in the sky that our heads can see above clouds.

Briana has been accepted to all the colleges she applied to. She must make a decision by tomorrow- when the commitment deposit is due. Her parents want her to go to one school because she got a scholarship. Her guidance counselor and principal want her to go to another so they can use her accomplishment as publicity for the high school. Briana doesn’t want to go anywhere.

“Excited for college?”

“I guess.”

“It’s different from high school. The best four years of your life.”


“Don’t worry about not knowing what you want to do; college will help you figure that out.”

“Um okay.”

What happens to us why we stop dreaming?

Briana is graduating from college, the worst four years of her life. She studied biology. She doesn’t like biology. She barely made C’s. The only A’s came from a creative writing class her sophomore year. She never auditioned for the play because it reminded her how she never studied theatre. She will go to medical school. Being a doctor makes money. Being a doctor is practical. Being a doctor fulfills everyone’s dream for her.

“You’re going to be a doctor? Your parents must be proud.”


“You should be proud of yourself. Are you proud?”

“I didn’t think I would graduate so.”

“When you’re passionate about something you work hard to get it.”

“I guess.”

“Your life can only go up from here.”

“Um okay.”

Why do we never make those wish upon a star hopes become our day to day realities?

Briana dropped out of medical school. She passed out the first time she drew blood. Her hair fell out from the stress of exams. Medical school was not for her. She went back to school to study law. Law is okay. Law is practical, but not her passion. She forgot those years ago. She figures this will make her happy enough. She worries it might not.

“I thought you were going to be a doctor.”

“I didn’t like medical school… I’m going to be a lawyer instead.”

“You always seemed more like a lawyer. You like to argue a lot.”

“It’s more than that, but-“

“You’ll make tons of money; you must be happy.”


“Maybe one day, I’ll call you to get out of traffic tickets.”

“Um okay.”

Why do we spend childhood growing our dreams as rosebuds begging to bloom only to cut them down at the root the moment they’ve fully blossomed?

Briana works for the Mayor’s Office. She prosecutes Wall Street executives too greedy for their own good. She is good at her job, but she hates it. She writes on the weekend, but lately hasn’t had time because her boss gave her a huge case. Her colleagues throw her a party to celebrate. She thinks it’s their excuse to drink during the day. No one sees her wash down an anti-depressant with the celebratory champagne.

“If this were a private firm, you’d be partner by now.”

“I’m fine where I am.”

“What lawyer wouldn’t want to be promoted?”

“One who never wanted to be a lawyer in the first place...”


“I said I don’t know.”

“I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer.”

“Um okay.”

What happens to a dream deferred?

Briana is presenting at Career Day. She doesn’t think she sounds convincing. Kids are falling asleep. Someone raises their hand. They ask her if this was her dream. She tells them about the days when curtain calls were more important than closing cases. This person asks why she never became an actress. She tells them life got in the way she listened to too many people tell her what she could and couldn’t do. The room is silent. The teacher thanks her for her time. She’s knows he doesn’t mean it.  

What happens to a dream deferred? Why does it show its face in every person I see? A dream deferred is a broken heart ripped open like a plastic bag of chips. A dream deferred is a childhood buried under broken promises that will never be kept. I could waste time telling you more about it, but you can see it for yourself. Look at the people around you. See how the weight of their worlds has curved their spines. Look at the dark circles under their eyes. Hear the way they sigh instead of breathing. I’ll ask you again; what happens to a dream deferred? I think you already know the answer and it’s not as beautiful as Langston Hughes described.

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