Is the American dream dead?

If Washington insiders looked down on my family in our Wal-Mart clothes, how could they ever relate to the lives of most Americans?

In recent years, our family has traveled cross-country, visiting 37 states and countless museums, landmarks, and parks. Our dream was to expose our children to amazing educational experiences.

I didn't realize, however, that a rare opportunity to stay in a ritzy hotel in Washington this summer would also be exposing them to elitism at its core.

In our tourist attire, we stood out like sore thumbs. Women in polished high heels and impeccable coiffures swept past. I looked down at my rumpled sweater, Wal-Mart jeans, and $11 tennis shoes. Where did a no-frills mother of four boys fit? Was the world really divided between power suits and ponytails – insiders and outsiders?

Entangled in the daily struggle of raising kids and getting by in a devastated economy, I didn't relate to these beautiful ice women.

Later, my 13-year-old echoed my thoughts. After taking photos of the hotel, he noted that all of the people had the same expression: disgust.

My husband and I sighed. Our son wasn't so innocent anymore.

Had we been wrong not to teach him about the exclusionary nature of the "real world"? I didn't want to lose the kind, gifted boy with an easy smile and ready sense of humor who loved Gandhi as a 6-year-old. But I also didn't want him to be barred from the world of influence because he was different.

My dreams seemed dashed. Anger rose in me from two fronts.

First, would my children be barred from being great men because we couldn't afford an Ivy League education?

Second, if these Washington insiders looked down on us in our Wal-Mart clothes, how could they ever relate to the Wal-Mart lives of most Americans? Most of us pinch pennies, worry about feeding our kids, watch healthcare payments devour our paychecks, and live just a few checks away from being homeless.

These thoughts burned inside me as I took in Washington's landmarks. We had come here to set our boys' spirits afire with their own dreams. Now I wondered if it was all for naught. Was the spirit-stirring Lincoln Memorial with the powerful words etched on the walls and Lincoln himself looking down into our eyes a hoax? Were all these monuments just propaganda tools?

Ideals I had cherished for 40 years were shaken as I recalled those looks of "disgust." Maybe the American dream really was dead. I wondered how my boys would transform our country if they weren't even invited to the party.

It wasn't until I walked into the National Gallery of Art that my spirit was soothed. I looked around at the other tourists – tall, short, young, old, dark-skinned, light-skinned, rich, poor – and saw them also being transformed. We heard the stories that these paintings and sculptures told. No ice queens here. The people on the walls came alive. They felt and expressed and fought and despaired and triumphed. Those artists influenced, regardless of their class and social status. Hundreds of years later, they still spoke.

While walking through the gallery, I hatched a new plan, a new curriculum for my boys. Art school maybe? Perhaps as members of the creative class, they might be heard. Vive la Révolution!

Em Powers Hunter is a writer, educator, and the mother of future American leaders.

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