We asked fifth-graders at two diverse elementary schools in Renton to share their dreams with us. A decade ago, it was hard to imagine what the future would look like for these kids, the first crop born after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
TARAS SUKHOVINSKYY and his buddy, Daniel Ortiz, are sitting on the prickly gray carpet outside their fifth-grade classroom at Tiffany Park Elementary School in Renton, talking about their dreams.
“I want to be an inventor and invent new things so life is easier for people,” says Taras, 10, a darling, earnest boy with sleepy eyes. His T-shirt is embroidered with the word “awesome,” which pretty much describes him and his plans to invent flying cars and robots that do laundry and take out the garbage.
Taras’ playful classmate, Daniel, says he’s going to be a video-game designer.
“I’m going to sell it for a lot of money so I can pay my family back,” Daniel says proudly. He’s grateful, he says, for everything his family has given him.
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Good-hearted, kind, smart, ambitious dreamers. Meet the Class of 2013, fifth-grade edition.
We didn’t know what to expect when we asked fifth-graders at two diverse elementary schools in Renton to sit down with us and share their dreams.
A decade ago, it was hard to imagine what the future would look like for these kids. They were the first crop born after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The world seemed so dark then, the future so uncertain, that a pregnant woman was just as likely to get a look of concern as congratulations.
As they learned to walk, scribble, dribble a soccer ball and page through “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” the country endured two wars, a prolonged recession, home foreclosures and job losses in the millions, including some of their parents’. School and family budgets were cut even as income inequality became so skewed that citizens took to the streets in protest.
It was enough to wear down the most committed optimist.
Yet here they are, a spirited parade of humanity clad in jeans and T-shirts, fuzzy jackets and hoodies, ready to claim their future.
These 10- and 11-year-olds, with their coltish legs and smiles unspoiled by the tyranny of orthodontia, have not learned there are things they can’t do.
They want to help. They want to be useful.
They want to go to college, and start businesses and build things. They want to take care of pets and their parents.
That’s not to say they’ve figured it out. They’re still trying on titles like socks from their parents’ drawers: architect/photographer, veterinarian/artist, teacher/pediatrician … Some day, one or more of them will fit.
They know chasing dreams requires hard work and practice.
They are the embodiment of hope, and they’re counting on us, the adults, to help them find their way.
They want to learn from us.
We can learn a lot from them, too.
AT THE RIPE old age of 10, Farhiyo Aden already has her eye on business.
“I want to be making clothes or making a restaurant,” she says shyly, her head covered by a patterned purple hijab.
The third oldest of seven children, Farhiyo says her mother wants her to be a doctor. But she’d rather be running a restaurant with her sister in France, serving up French fries and pizzas. If not that, then she wants to make wedding dresses and casual clothes, she says.
Farhiyo has only a vague notion of what it takes to run a restaurant: “Ask my mother for more recipes,” she offers when questioned about how she plans to make her dream happen.
But her teacher, John Paul, is gradually helping fill in the knowledge gaps.
When he has a few minutes between lessons, he cues up a 3-minute animated Web video featuring America’s most benevolent businessman, Warren Buffett, talking in kid terms about managing money and starting a business.
Buffett describes how much work it takes to build a reputation and how easy it is to destroy that reputation with a single act of dishonesty. As he wraps up the lesson, the students repeat the closing line along with him: “The more you learn, the more you earn.”
Last year, the Renton School District began encouraging teachers to teach career and college readiness. Paul, 34, who is also a writer and musician, seized on an idea floated by the school’s music teacher: Instead of preparing kids to enter the workforce, why not prepare them to be the source of that workforce?
“Resilience is going to have to be underlying everything, no matter what they do,” Paul says. “They know they have to go forward and attack that dream.”
Paul says many of his students have been affected by the bad economy and “bring it up in a big way.”
“With all the bad news, it’s tough for people,” Paul says. “Things can be pretty bad, but I tell them, ‘You can be the person who pulls it off.’ “
The students pick up ideas at school, he says, but their exposures outside the class, whether on television or in person, can have a searing effect. For instance, a few weeks earlier, a Renton firefighter came to the school for an assembly. When asked their future plans, four of the 21 students we spoke to in Paul’s class said they wanted to be firefighters or paramedics.
ACROSS TOWN, at Talbot Hill Elementary, Melissa McDowell’s fifth-graders are already holding down jobs.
The school runs a “microsociety” within the school that includes government, courts, a bank, media outlets and businesses that they manage and work for as employees. Some of them have been promoted to managers, while others have been “fired.” Still others make products they sell at the school marketplace, operate a bank, and a magazine and television station.
“They’re building real-world skills that give them the confidence to go forward,” says McDowell.
The 14 students from McDowell’s class who spoke with us were confident, but their choices at this point seem more informed by the people they’re exposed to, or stories they’ve heard, than by the microsociety experience.
“I want to be a nurse in Africa,” says Devante Lawyer. “I want to help kids that, like, lost their parents and stuff.”
Devante says he began thinking about his career choice last year. He can’t put a finger on the genesis, except to say, “I just don’t feel like they should … have a life that’s unfair, like, to ours. They work hard and don’t get as much as they need.”
Devante says he doesn’t have a specific country in mind, just “one that needs help the most, maybe.”
He says he’d like to go to Harvard, and find a mentor to tell him what nursing is like and what steps he needs to follow.
His classmate Helen Chen also has plans for college.
“I really wanted to be, since I was 4, I wanted to be a vet and artist — so probably both,” she says.
“I’m fascinated by animals and their distinctive features,” she says, warming to the subject. “Since when I learned to read, I’ve been interested in animals: what they’re good at, how they react to predators and prey.”
Her favorite: “The duck-billed platypus. They’re the only mammal that lays eggs, and they have a sixth sense, too.”
THE TALBOT students and their counterparts at Tiffany Park included a few with aspirations to play professional sports, though not in conventional ways.
Amaziah Lynch emerged from the school’s library with six paperbacks about the National Basketball Association — study material to prepare her for a career in the NBA, either as a player or coach.
It’s a longshot career, and she knows that, she says. That’s why she has a backup plan: doctor.
Her grandparents are disabled, and she enjoys cooking for them: greenbeans and corn, waffles, sausage and eggs.
Either way — pro baller or doctor — she says she’s headed for college. Adults can help her by telling her the steps she needs to take, and things she needs to learn at an early age.
“I’m pushing myself to be better than my parents were,” she says.
Kamyah Alexander from Tiffany Park is determined to play professional football.
“My mom says there’s no football girl league, but I tell her I’m going to make one because I want to play,” says Kamyah, who, at 11, has more confidence than half of Seattle. Not surprisingly, she wants to play quarterback.
“I’m not a girly-girl,” she says, scrunching up her face as if she’d just tasted overcooked broccoli. “I’m sort of tough, a tom boy.”
She wants to live in a mansion in Los Angeles or Miami. Maybe Atlanta or Las Vegas. Someplace warm and sunny. She settles back for a minute with her eyes to the ceiling dreaming, a slow smile spreading on her face.
Her classmate, Rachel Knittle, is equally certain about her desire to write fantasy. She’s already written at least 10 stories, she says.
“I’ve liked writing books since second grade, and loved actually spelling things correctly,” says Rachel, who got hooked on fantasy, thanks to J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series.
“I started reading Harry Potter, but stopped because it was hard. I picked up again in fourth grade,” she says, and got hooked on the details. She’s started looking for those telling details for her writing, too, she says, and keeps writing so she won’t forget them.
Carlos Silver, who attends Talbot, also has a jump-start on his dream of designing a more interesting smartphone.
His brown eyes widen as he describes the ways they could be better and cooler.
“Maybe it can be a different shape,” he says, like maybe triangular, made entirely of blue glass. He’s got other ideas, too, that he’s sketched at home.
Carlos says he wants to work at Microsoft when he’s grown, and says adults can help him get there by assisting him with homework.
ONE OF THE MOST striking things about these young people is how many of them are interested in helping others.
There’s Elijah Ogundimu, who wants to be a teacher.
And Liliya Kozub and Karyna Yukhno want to be doctors; Angelique Martin wants to be a doctor or a nurse.
“My mom, she had cancer and I really wanted to help her,” Angelique says. “I really want to be a nurse to help people who have cancer.”
There’s Tyler Ashley, who made a pact with his older sister to become police officers in Renton. But he watched a TV show called “Chicago Fire,” and decided to be a paramedic instead.
If one thing is clear, it’s that we don’t have to worry about their hearts. We do have to worry about giving them the resources and encouragement they need, and about ways to teach them more than academics.
A recent Brookings Institute study shows that social and emotional learning are just as important as academic competency in predicting success in middle school. Children with self-awareness, self-control, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making skills do better in school than a child still navigating those waters, according to the authors. Without those skills, emotional distress takes over.
The more adults expose children to possibilities, and talk about their own successes and failures, what worked and what didn’t, the more children will understand the importance of perseverance, says Tiffany Park’s Paul.
Because, at the end of the day, after the math and reading lessons, after library and music and art class, there’s something else the kids need: hope.
Susan Kelleher is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.