What is Success?

In Room 101 I teach a class called Success 101. The goal of the class is to have students gain a perspective  of the future and their role in it. Where do you see yourself in say 10 years?What are your goals and aspirations? And, how do you plan to achieve them? We are working  to empower them with tools they can use to be successful. Aw, succes! What is success? Who gets to define what it looks like ? And what are the students willing to accept as their success?

The class is not designed to tell them what they “should be”, but to allow them to investigate the myriad of possibilities that are open to them. To explore what steps they may take to put themselves in the best position to succeed and how to handle failure if that happens . I understand as an older white middle class male, my definition of success may be interpreted differently by my students. (over half my class is students of color or from a lower economic strata) But does it have to be?  Am I trying to get them to be “successful” like me? No,  when I am talking about success it’s not the material success that comes to mind.  One of the first assignments in Success 101 is to imagine where they may want to live in 10 years. Look through Real Estate listings to find a home. To put this in some context, our school is in  New Jersey just boarding Camden, one of the most economically depressed cities in America. Many of the students either live in or have lived in Camden, or on it’s border and feel the economic effect of the city. They  have been told  that they  come from the “ghetto”. They are constantly are being told it’s a place to get away from.  Is that the message we want to be sending them? If you live in a bad place, you must be a bad person? And what is bad? Who gets to define what that means?  Are our students starting in a deficit or defensive mind set just by where they live? Is success for them “just getting out?” What does that say about pride in community and their ability to take control of  themselves and their future?

A good number of the students start by finding homes in California, Florida, or places in the midwest that they have no knowledge about, just to put distance between themselves  and their current situation. I understand that , but is that really success for them? Leaving your community, family, friends? I had a student who is from Camden, and found his “home” in the Midwest. Another student showed him his “home” back in Camden. The first student couldn’t understand why his friend wanted to stay.His reply was” I want to come back and make it better there”  To me that is the key issue, being successful will look different to everyone. Sure having money and a nice home  can be a definition of success, but it can be so much bigger than that. Why should students feel they need to leave their communities to be “successful”   Building a sense of power within the students to understand they don’t have to run away from who they are or where they are from. That they don’t have to accept the labels placed on them, Or, that’s it’s OK to break away and change. But, the choice shoulds be theirs. I want them to understand they get to define what success is to them and how they may affect change for themselves and their community. Don’t let other box you into choices that are not yours.

People will often be defined by others for  where they are from or how they live. For many students this may become a self fulling prophesy and identity . Are they letting others set  goals and definition of what success looks like that are not theirs? Do we want our students to feel they have to leave their homes and families for future success? Is this the message we want to be sending our students? You hear a message often enough you may  start to believe it yourself. Students should not feel that to be “successful” in life they have to leave their home or community. How do we open them up to see the power they have to implement change for themselves and their environment?if-not-now-then-when-if-not-you-then-who

Success is not monetary or collecting “things”. Success is having control of your story. Success is not allowing yourself to be defined or pigeonholed by where you are from or how you dress. Being a success in life may be just  living up to the responsibilities you have. Taking care of your family, being a responsible citizen, and using your voice to change the things that you see as wrong. I understand that people want to live a more comfortable life, be free of financial worries, feel safe in their homes. Sometimes we need to step back to gain a perspective on the world as a whole. Understanding that we do not live in a vacuum may allow students to see the world as interconnections of many types of people, and many definitions of success, and they can choose which is best for them. And yes, there is a lot that needs to be changed for the betterment of others,are we allowing our students to see that they have value, they have a voice for change?

So what are we teaching them about being a success?  Is it a big house and a SUV, turning away from who they are and where they are from? Or, is it using their innate power to affect change? To give back,and to come back to a community that needs “successful ” people to model for those who come  behind them and show that the future is theirs. That’s success!

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