The Creature Dreams

Gary Larsen, The Far Side. (Did you hear he’s back and creating fresh content?) I’ve missed Mr. Larsen.

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[5-minute read]

I don’t think of myself as an anxious person, particularly, but performance-anxiety dreams are my bedbugs. My bride still dreams, decades later, of being on stage in full costume but without an idea of what the choreography is. For me, it takes the form, occasionally, of long-gone athletic worries (suddenly I can’t judge a fly ball and there it goes, over my head!) or whistle-blowing tensions (wait, these kids have no clue and where are the basketballs anyway? Hold it, there are no baskets in this gym?!). Most often, though, after three decades in the classroom, it’s Teaching Anxiety that troubles my sleep.

Every August they’d kick into top gear, without fail. Even after retirement – or during interludes when I wrote for a living – I knew September was coming not so much from cooling nights and red-tinged trees as from at-school-sans-pants, can’t-find-my-classroom midnight adventures. Classic symptoms. After a week or so of starting-the-year nightmares — I can’t say they were terrifying, but my sub-conscious was clearly hard at work already — I’d head for my classroom on Day One wondering, “Can I still do this? You’re only as good as your last lesson, buddy, and it’s not like you’re gettin’ younger!” And two minutes in I’d know, without fail, “You were made for this. Let’s GO!

Now, a few years into retirement, the Teacher Dreams are still with me, but they’re changing. They started at about the same time of year, but there’s been no First Day of School to dismiss them, and it’s no longer the start of school that get me so much as the dread of an Ending. I loved teaching, but although I long for more of those dynamic interactions, those performances, I don’t miss the professional duties or their daily grind at all, especially with the added load teachers carry due to Covid. But I’ve been on a steady diet of dreams like this: I’m teaching, my usual assortment of high school English courses, and it seems they’ve been going along well except that I don’t think I’ve showed up for that grade 10 writing class in a month and it dawns on me that marks are due next week! and I don’t have a single grade recorded for any of these kids and I’m not totally clear on all their names and how the hell am I going to do report cards when I haven’t given even one quiz or essay?

Waking up with a full bladder becomes a minor blessing – I’d rather have unbroken sleep but I’m relieved to wake up to thank God, I don’t even teach anymore! and at least if I take the time to stumble to the toilet there’s a chance I can get on some fresh and less-fraught dream trail.

Until the pandemic struck, I was still coaching post-retirement, so I get enough contact with educators to meet my minimal collegiality needs. In the halls of St. Paul High (Home of the Bears!) and in these maddeningly persistent dreams, I still like the kids, too. My REM-sleep classes have been, it seems, pleasant and stimulating. A culture of learning, or at least mild fun, appears to exist, and that was always essential for me; the nightmare aspect is that I haven’t done anything to meet external obligations to parents or administrators and I have no proof that I’ve done my job and surely somebody’s gonna find out! It’s telling, as well, that in these dreams most of the kids seem to be faces from the ‘80s, the beginning of my career. (Oddly, last night I noticed that Cindy B seems often to be there, too, yet she was a high school classmate that I haven’t thought much about in forever. Tall, fair, smart and madly blushing through grade 9 and beyond, she was that girl who kind of looked “like the girl that married dear old dad!” I went on to marry two women with vaguely similar qualities, actually, so there’s that, but CB was someone I always furtively watched but was too paralyzed to actually be friendly with. So what is she doing in my shadow classes? Hey Ceeb! Are you out there? Can you hear this?)

I’m trying to figure all this out, though it’s not new and I don’t think I need any therapy and these mild confessions are probably enough; heck, maybe writing this will trick my subconscious into leaving me free of Teacher Dreams, at least until next August. So I’ll lay it out for you (and my overnight drama apparatus). I was an English Creature: I cajoled and recited and joked and reminded and marked and marked and marked. My markings (never in red) were not so much about grading the papers – I always struggled with that whole numerical assignment of value – but as in obsessive editing and commentary and suggestion and nearly never-ending chances for rewrites. And yes, there were semi-annual all-nighters to get caught up with the piles, and end-of-term was always a high-wire act to not drive the office ladies nuts and the whole End of Semester Evaluation Machine off its narrow rails. (I was also the guy that insisted on composing his own comments for the computerized reporting mechanism, until the infernal contraption no longer accepted anything but choices from a pre-digested, nuance-free and generally useless menu of unredeemable banality. That alone made me glad the end of my career was in sight.)

So we’ve moved. Rather than comatose fretting about whether I can Do This Thing, now my sleeping state appears to worry that I didn’t do enough? (Call it Progress!) How many times have I awakened in the last, what, year or so? Over and over, I’ve been flooded with relief: I haven’t failed the system. I gave it all I had. And especially, I remember for the X-tieth time: Oh! Right! Praise be! I’m not a teacher anymore! And I remember being pierced — I’m haunted still — by the frantic refrain of The Cure’s “Never Enough” in the halls of Hagersville Secondary School.

                           However big I ever feel / It’s never enough / Whatever I do to make it real / It’s never enough / In any way I try to speak
                            Never enough / Never enough…

Never enough. Never enough. It happens over and over. Somebody is trying to tell me something. Sheesh. It looks like I still have some things to learn from English class.


Comments (3)

  1. Doug Murray

    Being a former high school classmate (Go Blue Devils!), perhaps I can relate more to your stories than most: Joe, John, Bronco, my big brother Ken, and the rest of the ’68-’69 Corvairs team were my heroes. Also, I know Cindy B., and also that “blonde” you mentioned in another article. Being (recently) also a retired teacher, this article really struck home. Having had those dreams each Fall for the past 38 years, I was hoping that maybe September of 2021 would be void of them; I guess that may not be the case! [Ed. note: Doug Murray Knows Things! I had best be careful if old classmates actually *read* my stuff. Hey DM, thanks for dropping by!]

  2. Denis Carnochan

    Strike another hit with this retired teacher. Around mid-August I start feeling unfocused anxiety and am more of a mess by the long weekend in September. I have been retired for over 12 years now and can still recognize the effects of teaching junior high for 19 years. Also, I can still recognize the signs of pre-puberty at 100 yards — metres where I live — and that’s about as close as I want to get! At least now I can pass the school where I taught without all the angst of preparing to enter the daily grind there. Strangely, I still wake up in a panic occasionally, dreaming/remembering the one day early in my career when I wasn’t prepared and the kids had a pre-lunch snack that day. Kids always know when you’re not prepared. I think it’s a predator/prey thing that can be seen in your eyes, just like the relationship between wolves and deer. For the remainder of my career I had backup material — layers of it — just in case.

    But the pleasure of living in a small town is that I get the best positive feedback of those years when I meet my old students at the store or post office. I look at their weary faces as they now deal with their own teenagers and deep inside I always feel a sense that cosmic justice has occurred and I smile to myself and feel pretty good about the universe.

  3. Heather

    I am glad that I am not the only retired teacher who gets really antsy on Labour Day weekend. I can now sleep on Sunday nights, though, unlike when I was teaching and always worrying about which crucial detail I had forgotten for Monday – and there are so many details! I too wrote personal comments for the report cards until the system could no longer allow them. I found that the new approved comments could not say what I wanted to say in a way the parents, or even I, could understand after I cobbled together sentences with the right modifiers and goals. I still miss September with the kids, the excitement and promise of starting over.

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