I recently had the occasion to view the film Billy Elliott. It was a wonderful film, very memorable and affecting.
Of course the rags-to-riches, escape from opressive circumstances, or break through to one's ultimate potential is pretty familiar territory. I immediately thought of Flashdance (maybe not quite as deep as Billy Elliott, but the heroine does want to better herself through ballet!). Other films in this genre would be Working Girl and Slumdog Millionaire (which I haven't seen). Still others have been taken from real life stories: The Blind Side, The Pursuit of Happyness, October Sky. I've listed here films, but of course there are many other examples in literature and in real life.
It was suggested somewhere in my searching out some things about rags to riches stories and myths that the classic hero makes good with work and maybe some luck has gone somewhat out of favor. I still think this is a pretty persistent mythological story line. The American Dream is of course to get ahead through education and effort. Also, think of all the young folks who dream of making it in the NFL, NBA or as a music star (whatever genre). I think it's still very much around.
The trouble is: it's often more myth than reality. Studies have found that America is not as upwardly mobile as many of us might think. Sociologist Fabian Pfeffer found that parental wealth is an important factor in the socioeconomic mobility of children. A study by the Pew Charitable Trust found that children whose parents were in the bottom fifth in income tended to remain below the middle income level as adults. You can read a bit more about this here.
Does this mean the myth has no value? Is is just something that's a social control? I'm not so sure. I think that these stories can be inspiring. The real life stories do show that such successes are possible. But we must make sure that we always put the 'myth' in context. Students need to know that the odds are against making it big in sports or music. Even rising to a high position in business or academics is a long shot. That doesn't mean that students - and the rest of us - shouldn't put forth best efforts. It means that we need to be aware of other factors (such as the social constructs of our field). try to work around those, and of course have a Plan B. It also makes sense that we should put in place things that might help youth to achieve success. Mentoring programs, career guidance ( for example, how many would-be sports or music stars would cosider a career in say, science, or a more behind the scenes job such as athletic training or music production), and of course, educational suppport could be important building blocks for a solid future.
Another thing we must be aware of is the dynamic between making a living and doing what one truly loves. Billy is fortunate to be able to do what he loves at the highest level. Many will not be quite so fortunate. Each individual must find this balance for him or her self, but we must as a society and a community dialog about this dynamic and strategize ways to work through it.
And oh, yes, I love happy endings!