I’ve been having a lot of teaching dreams lately. Or, perhaps more accurately, teaching nightmares.
For instance, last night I dreamed that I was at my new school on the first day, only this new school looked exactly like the high school I went to back in Massachusetts. And so I thought I knew my way around, (in fact I remember wanting to look into some of the old classrooms and talk to former teachers) but for the life of me I could not find my own classroom where I was supposed to be teaching! The bell rang, kids shuffled to classes everywhere, and I simply could not find where I was supposed to go.
Bewildered, I ran through the halls – upstairs, downstairs, peeking into classrooms as I went by and catching glimpses of my own former teachers.
Eventually I came to a deserted classroom, which was apparently where I was supposed to be introducing myself to my new class. Mr B. (my high school principal, not my future principal) came in and demanded to know where my students were. For some reason I knew the students he spoke of were my Louisiana kids, and so I mumbled something about being late and that possibly they had all gone to look for me in a different room.
“Well, find them!” he said.
Once again I returned hopelessly to the endless hallways. Suddenly I saw my old senior English teacher, Mr. Tallon, who died very suddenly last year.
“Mr. Tallon?” I gasped. “I thought you had died!”
“A lot of people thought that,” he said amicably.
“Could you please help me? I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go.”
Nonchalantly, and at a very leisurely pace, he walked me through the hallways and we chatted about old times. I felt better since I was with him, but I still felt a gnawing sense of anxiety because I could not find my students.
“Have you ever been up to the fifth floor?” he asked me suddenly.
At my high school, there is no fifth floor. “Um, I didn’t think there was one…”
“This way!” he said. And he went up a tiny stairwell. I hesitated because I really don’t like cramped, small spaces, and because I felt we were getting a little off-track.
Then another teacher arrived and asked us in annoyance where we were going. I felt helpless and sure that my employment was coming to a swift and disastrous end.
And then I woke up.
The English teacher in me is tempted to analyze this dream, to speculate on the significance of me getting lost in my old school, and my quest for my missing Louisiana students, and my encounter with my deceased senior English teacher. And perhaps to observe my own anxiety about starting at a new school this year, which thus far I have (during waking hours) kept at arms-length.
The other part of me, which finds dreams in general to be annoying and rather stressful, wants to dismiss this and all other nightmares about teaching I have had this summer.
If you were hoping that this post was going to come to some revelatory and insightful conclusion about the purpose of dreams, I am afraid you will be disappointed. But here is what I do know, after thinking about my dream:
1) I really miss my students in Louisiana, and maybe I will be feeling a bit lost without them at my new school.
2) I miss Mr. Tallon and my other old teachers, and I wish I could ask for their advice. I wish I could remember what exactly they did every day that helped me learn so much.
3) I wonder why dreams had such significance in the Bible, in both the Old and New testaments. I am thinking particularly of the angel visiting St. Joseph in his dreams, encouraging him to take Mary as his wife, and later urging him to take his family away to Egypt. I mean, how do you know when you should pay attention to your dreams, and when you shouldn’t? How did St. Joseph know?
4) All of my nightmares about teaching have been about losing control of the situation – and yet this is what teaching is! Through painfully embarrassing experiences, my waking self has realized that one of the secrets of teaching is simply accepting the fact that there is so much out of your control. When you are in a room of twenty five adolescents, anything can happen. You just don’t know what happened between student A and her best friend this morning, or student B and his parents, or student C and his lack of sleep. And that’s okay. Somehow, you need to give them the sense that you are in control, but at the same time you should resist being under such illusions yourself. God is in control, and that has to be enough.
What do you think about dreams?
Richard Wilbur writes a lot about dreams in his poetry. Here is one of his very best poems from his newest collection, Anterooms, which I believe he wrote about his recently deceased wife.
“The House” by Richard Wilbur
Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.
What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.
Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.