I don’t believe it: 39 years old, and I am still having back-to-school dreams. It was my last dream before waking, though it takes me a few minutes to register the absurdity of the situation. I’m standing in the shower thinking, Jesus, do ex-convicts still have nightmares about prison twenty-two years after their release?
Actually, the dream was fairly innocuous. I was my present, more-or-less confident, wise-cracking self, and even flirted a bit with the homeroom teacher when I arrived a minute late and had to submit to some extra paperwork. She responded with amusement. Neither of us had to clarify the situation, so familiar in the funhouse mirror world of my dream life: the System had finally caught up with me, and as penance for all the tests I’d taken without studying, the homework I’d refused to take home and the hundreds of hours of class time I’d spent daydreaming, I had to go back and take twelfth grade over.
Almost everybody has these dreams, I guess. I wonder whether they qualify as symptoms of mild post-traumatic stress disorder? If so, that might explain a lot. Certainly, our society-wide acceptance of the therapeutic effects of punishment, sensory deprivation and imprisonment can be attributed in part to the fact that we’ve almost all gone through this system and internalized its lessons. But what do psychiatric professionals say about back-to-school dreams? I’m not sure what the consensus would be, but I suspect “the Dream Doctor” is fairly typical when he assures Cheryl in NYC that
[B]ack to school dreams do not reflect a desire to return to school, nor do they reflect emotional trauma from our school years. Instead, the dreams reflect challenges in our current life–usually in a career or social context–about whether or not we will “graduate to the next level.” What’s the connection? The pressure we feel today reminds us of how we used to feel back in high school or college before we took an exam: nervous, and wondering if we will “make the grade.”
Back to school dreams occur when we are stressed about completing a project at work, for example, or if we are switching careers, experiencing money problems, or are trying to “graduate” to a new position in our romantic lives.
Hmmm. Yes, that’s me.
Come to think of it, though, I was involved in one highly stressful situation right before bed, though I wasn’t the one having a bad night. My parents buzzed me on the intercom around 9:30 and asked if I’d mind coming up and helping them get a bat out of the house. I grabbed my coat and raced up the hill.
It was on the floor of the sitting room, down among the boots and slippers, doing a pretty good job of resembling some kind of bizarre winter garment – a thumb warmer, perhaps, or a toddler’s fuzzy boot. Due to its size, appearance and evident cold-hardiness, we decided it must be a big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus). Based on past experience trying to evict other, more fearful species of bats in the summer months, we expected an ordeal, but it turned out to be no trouble to slip a plastic basin over it and slide a piece of cardboard underneath. It emitted a single, high-pitched squeal. We carried it outside and lifted the basin. I held the cardboard in one hand – mindful of the species’ reputation for ferocity – and my camera in the other. FLASH. It bared its teeth – good! Hold that pose! FLASH. Then it spun around and launched itself into the night. I went to review my pictures and found I’d left the lens cap on.
So you’d think I would’ve dreamt about small, fierce creatures of the night… or at least my anxiety concerning my inability to photograph wildlife. But all I remember is an earlier dream, sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning, which also concerned education. It seemed that I was a high-paid tutor of would-be poets. (Don’t laugh!) One of them mentioned that she was a high school administrator, and asked me if I had a theory of teaching. “Give me a moment,” I said – and woke up. A theory of teaching? Hmm. I lay there thinking about it. Yes, maybe I would have to have one. But it would need to be flexible, changing from pupil to pupil, even from hour to hour.
Dialogue, I thought. Apart from the give and take of conversation – including the internal dialogues we have with our favorite authors – it’s all just technical training or indoctrination, isn’t it?
I guess it makes sense that, when I finally drifted back to sleep, the roles would be reversed and I would find myself a student once again. In my waking life, too, I honestly feel that I haven’t learned anything of value in my nearly forty years on the planet, and perhaps this provokes a mild state of anxiety. Shouldn’t I really know something by now?
The other students all appeared to be of high school age, though the only one I focused on – because he happened to be talking to the teacher when I walked in – was one of my old classmates. That’s one of the things that struck me later on, standing in the shower. Why the heck would this guy be in my dream? True, he was the state heavyweight wrestling champ, and one of the most popular kids in the school. But he wasn’t in any of my classes, and he and I didn’t cross paths from one year to the next. A couple times since graduation I’d heard about what he’d done in life: attended a state university on an athletic scholarship, gotten an education degree, and gone into – what else? – public school teaching. He even won some teaching awards, I think. Then a couple months ago I heard that he’d died suddenly, of what exactly I’m not sure. As I said, we were never close. But here he was standing next to the teacher’s desk, giving me a friendly but uncomprehending look, seventeen years old again. I bared my teeth.