I’m standing next to the teacher’s desk, looking over her shoulder at the class register. She also stares at it, shaking her head in a half-disappointed, half-apologetic manner. “I’m sorry”, she says, “but you haven’t taken a single test in chemistry this semester.” My heart is pounding and I feel as thoughI might cry. Surely, this can’t be happening. “And your attendance was so low that I couldn’t give you a pass anyway”.
I want to plead but can’t make a sound. This is not possible. This can’t be. I must explain… Wait a moment, please!
Another scenario. I’m sitting on the glossy parquet flooring with my back to the wall of the corridor. In a moment, the teacher will appear to let us into the classroom. There’s not much time — I forgot about today’s quiz on required reading. The book in my lap is two hundred pages long, and there are twelve minutes left before the bell rings. At least the letters are big. Maybe I can figure out the main characters; an outline of the plot.
Sudden hope speeds up my pulse but the din of the recess is too loud. It’s too distracting. Somebody just ran past me, nearly tripping on my legs. I need a moment of quiet. I can’t do it like this! My breath shortens, panic is setting in. This makes no sense, I shouldn’t even be here…!
Yet another scene, this time with me standing at the entrance to the school gym. Yes, I know I forgot my PE kit again — I can explain! But the teacher doesn’t let me speak. “Your PE attendance is way below fifty percent. Legally, you can’t pass the class without at least fifty.” I know, I know, I want to shout, but my explanations will make no sense. Nobody will listen. And I already know what the teacher will say.
“I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to move up next year.” Surely, you could let me? I will catch up on PE, I promise… Why do I even want to plead? I shouldn’t be here, I don’t have to be here!
Finally, I find my voice. “It’s ok”, I try to be casual but I’m afraid how ridiculous I sound, “I already have my Master’s. I don’t need to pass PE.” But the teacher doesn’t hear me. She turns away and walks toward her office.
Now it really sinks in. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing to prove that this all is a terrible mistake, and, and — and this is usually when I wake up.
My brain takes a split second to come back to reality. For the briefest moment, the possibility that I must repeat the whole year feels like it could be true. The moment passes, I’m back in 2023, I remember my MA diploma hanging on the wall in my mum’s apartment. I take a few deep breaths but they don’t banish the unease. Sometimes I think I’d rather have a nightmare.
Today, I Googled it for the first time. Back to school is listed as one of the top anxiety dream scenarios by a few not-so-scientific articles. So, now I’m Googling “back to school anxiety dreams”.
When NYT’s Jessica Grosse confided in her mother about her university-related stress dreams, she was surprised to learn that her grandfather was similarly haunted. She never imagined that an Austrian Jew, who barely escaped holocaust and lost many loved ones to the war, would fight in his sleep with his early education.
Scientists believe that “we remember more events from late adolescence and early adulthood than from any other stage of our lives,” and call it the reminiscence bump. If that affects what we dream about later in life, then surely I should be also dreaming about economic hardship as an immigrant in London, about my abusive relationships, or, searching deeper in the past, about the turbulent relationship between my teenage self and my mother. After all, two egotistic autistics under one roof make for a great nightmare scenario.
Still, it is high school PE and chemistry that mostly come back to me in my dreams, perhaps reflecting the fact that during my waking hours, I tend to worry about my career. Grosse points to the fact that academic tests in our adolescence is usually the first time we experience career-related pressure. Indeed, this reminded me of how much emphasis there used to be on doing well in school as a way of safeguarding my future. I’m rather relieved to find this sensible explanation, and I feel like this might even put an end to my school-test-night panics.
A few weeks ago, after discussing the anxiety dreams with two friends, we decided that when it happens next, I should clearly explain to the teacher that this all is an unfortunate mistake, that I already have my MA, and that I will take my leave now. Sure enough, upon being told I’d have to repeat a year, I was able to shrug my shoulders and walk away — once. A few nights later, I was back to mute mode again, overpowered by panic.
Grosse writes of “imagery rehearsal therapy (I.R.T.), which is a type of cognitive behavioural therapy in which the patient is taught how to move from an unpleasant or even traumatic recurring nightmare image to a more pleasant one. Going through this process while you are awake can actually help you rewrite your dreams while you are asleep”. It seems that’s what I already managed to achieve once. Perhaps it’s only a matter of reinforcement now. Much like Grosse, I’m not distressed by my school anxiety dreams enough to warrant going into real therapy, but if I can easily get rid of them myself, then why not.
I’m reading further.
According to one pundit, our dreams are often a reflection of traumatic events from our past which continue to affect us in the present, but the scenarios do not need to correspond with... read more now →