Nightmares: Back to School Edition

I don’t think I’m ready to go back to school. It’s a good thing there are several months between now and September, when school – graduate school – begins, ample time hopefully, for me to turn the nightmares into not nightmares.

Last night I watched the last episode of Sherlock: Season 1and went to bed around 12:30AM, early by young people (especially on Friday night) standards. I woke up this morning at 9AM, feeling far from rested despite the 8.5 hours of slumber, .5 hours more than my body needs. When my eyes opened I was surprised to be in my room, in bed and, when my brain sorted itself after a few moments, without any real responsibility than to get up and make myself some oatmeal.

My nightmare was utterly vivid and upon waking I still felt the lingering sense of panic that had carried over from my dreams. The burden of fear still rested quite squarely on my stiff shoulders. I blinked and wondered what was causing my unease, when images from the nightmare began to replay themselves. They say you must try and recall your dreams in the first five minutes after waking or else they may be lost forever, and I did just that. But I regret doing so. I could have done with forgetting.

I am back on my middle school campus, a place I’ve not visited since…middle school. There is a pentagon-shaped building in the middle where we had our English classes (I had the great fortune of being taught by a sweaty obese woman I’ll call Frau Krau, who broke into sweat each time she walked across the room. “Is it hot?” she would say, a raspy lisped voice emitting from her thin, neon pink lips, “I’m so hot!” Of course she was hot; she weighed nearly 400 pounds. The rest of us chattered as she cranked up the air conditioning). Now, I have a science class in this building, taught inexplicably, by the Slavic Lit Professor I adored (and to some degree still do) back in college. What the heck is he doing teaching middle school science? It doesn’t matter, I am rushing to his class but for some reason am terribly late. There is an exam being administered and I miss it. By the time I arrive everyone has turned in their Scantrons (there’s a kind of paper I hope never to see again!) and the Professor is beginning a new lecture.

Rene Magritte The Schoolmaster, 1954        Oil on canvas, Geneva, Private Collection

I gulp. If the students notice me, they don’t show it and keep their eyes ahead on the blackboard. My professor has changed neither his style of dress (shabby) or his method of teaching (excited, lots of questions posed to blank-faced students) from his Berkeley days and is talking animatedly about neutrons. The blackboard is fuzzy; either I don’t understand the subject matter or I’m so anxious I can’t read it. The classroom air feels warm because – I look around – it’s completely packed. Every desk is occupied. The students seem solemn, they are taking notes. They look like they all did well on the exam. I want desperately to take a seat and pull out a fresh piece of paper and do the good student thing. But the exam! I stand awkwardly in the back of the room like a creepy auditor and wait for the Professor to reach a pause. Finally he assigns an in-class assignment and when the students (oddly robotic) have lowered their heads in unison, I shuffle towards him, embarrassed. He looks up as though pleasantly surprised that I have stood up (though of course I never even sat down), and listens patiently when I meekly ask if I can take the test now.

“Well, uh, let’s see.” He thinks about it. I search his face. He seems only mildly surprised that I missed the exam and asks no questions. So I ask myself. What was I doing? But my dream self does not know, she knows only that she is late and that the exam is quite important.

From a jumble of papers on his desk the Professor pulls out a Scantron and hands it to me.

“Here,” he says, then turns again to dig for the exam itself. My Professor remains even in dreams, remarkably unorganized. The bell rings as he continues his search. A stack of papers falls to the ground and I look around. Oddly, none of the students seem to notice. Silently, they stand and pack their things up. The professor seems to have lost the exam. Good God man, I want to cry, sweat forming on my brow, wasn’t the exam administered less than twenty-minutes ago?

“Ah,” he says finally, holding up a wrinkled sheet of paper, “Here you go.” And in a generous act of academic kindness, tells me to take the exam at home.

“You know what to do,” he says, implying that I will take it without cheating, “Just bring it back to me tomorrow.”

In the dream I am a cheater. I take the exam and fold it over the Scantron, thinking sadly, “What a trusting man.”


It is the next morning. Delays, delays. I am driving some car and trying to make a U-turn. For some reason I’ve driven straight past the school, but my car’s being difficult. I’m aware of a giant shadow cast over from the left and of the open road to the right, not unlike the 15 North through Baker. Whatever is casting the shadow, I can’t tell, but I concentrate on making the turn. I do not think about science or my professor, only that I want to make it to class on time because I was already late yesterday. Finally the wheel gives way and I lurch onto the road heading in the other direction, back to school. I park at a filled but silent lot. Grabbing my books I see the wrinkled exam and the crisp, untouched Scantron. I’ve forgotten to take the exam. 

Rene Magritte The Companions of Fear, 1942 Oil on canvas Brussels, B. Friedlander-Salik, V. Dwek-Salik Collection 

What follows is the cliche’d sinking feeling made heavier still by shame. The shame of knowing my professor had not only trusted me but also given me special treatment, allowed me to take the test at home. What the hell was I doing the night before that I could completely forget to do it? But again, my dream self has no recollection of the night before, only that she woke up late and then had a difficult drive to school. She doesn’t pay attention, doesn’t do her homework, is perpetually unprepared.

In this dream there are no real consequences, only the feeling that I might profoundly disappoint someone I respect and admire. I lay in bed for a while, trying not to give too much weight to this dream and its symbols. Or perhaps this time, what I see is what I get. A professor is a professor is a professor. An exam is an exam is an exam. But still, I’m affected. I was bothered in the dream. I am bothered now.

I clutch the exam and the Scantron and walk with heavy feat towards the pentagon. I stand at the gates of the pentagon and gaze through the open door of my science classroom. The more punctual students have taken their seats and are already copying down the day’s lessons, absorbing the Professor’s words. He’s wearing another one of his ugly threadbare sweatshirts and waves a piece of chalk in the air, trying to describe something. From where I stand, it could be anything – Nabokov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens – but it’s science. Stuff that’s going to be on the next test. If he looks up and out, he’d see me standing on the opposite end, the blank Scantron in my hand and despairing expression on my face, but he’s happily doing what he does best. He sees nothing but the good, punctual students before him.

And almost evilly, the dream doesn’t stop there. My subconscious allows me a few more steps, and I take them. I walk towards the open door, clutching the Scantron tighter and tighter as my brain winds up with variations of the lie I’m about to tell. What will I say? How will I deliver it? How can I win him back because surely, there’s no excuse for not completing a take-home exam already a day late. What was I doing the night before? What was I doing? I step into the classroom and this time, the Professor, seeing me, smiles.

I wake.

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