Reoccurring Dreams of School

Recently, I reviewed a childhood nightmare of mine and a childhood nightmare of a friend. The utility I see in dissecting childhood nightmares is paying attention to our own weaknesses and quirks manifested by early trauma and dynamics. As children, we have an affinity for symbolism as this is the stage of development we find ourselves in, and the images our young subconscious mind paints for us is trying to tell us something about our raw and vulnerable selves. We cannot ignore this inner child and what it’s trying to tell us about ourselves.

We don’t necessarily grow out of nightmares as adults, but perhaps unnerving and weird dreams continue to follow us, and instead of shocking us awake or putting us in a sweat they fill our nights with anxiety. While I don’t necessarily dream of the grim reaper anymore, I find there are other dreams that haunt me–not quite as traumatic as nightmares–that say something important about myself and my needs.

I’d wager the dreams I’m about to share are not uncommon ones, and I hope by sharing them we can find more awareness on these popular themes that we all need to address in our personal lives.

Returning To School

Student First Day Primary School First Steps School

These dreams I noticed began plaguing me after graduating from college. The setting was always either elementary or high school. The people around me were unrecognizable, though I always had a sense that I was in my current adult state whereas my “classmates” were the age that they were supposed to be in.

In this dream, I’d been forced to return to school, to either retake classes or sign up for new ones. While I have a hard time remembering what exactly those classes were, I always got the sense that they were the broad range of subjects we are exposed to in public school rather than a specific set of courses we have agency to take in college. I always got a math feel from these, a subject I’m not fond of.

For whatever reason, the setting of the dream was usually always set either in the hallways of the building, the cafeteria, or driving myself on the way to school. I’d never seen a classroom in these dreams, though I do remember having to go through a rather small backpack to see if I had my supplies and having to see teachers outside the classroom to coordinate a schedule. 

I’d feel lost and a little embarrassed in these dreams, embarrassed that I’d been forced to “go back”. I’d also feel anguish for having to repeat these classes, to toil again on subjects I thought I’d put behind me. Perhaps the best way of putting this feeling is actually a despondency that comes from entropy; a feeling that even though you’ve put forth work, your surroundings and reality will just decay and fall back on you.

The dream I believe captures vividly a symbol of humility, a recognition that one must go back and relearn. Some of this might be our minds addressing our resistance to change/grow/learn and our need to pay attention to that mental stasis. It also could be a subconscious alarm ushering someone to humble themselves and return to study, or even to get in touch with one’s inner child.

I also get a sense of “incompletion” and “incompetence” that comes from this dream and the feeling of embarrassment of having to return to school with youths. Sometimes we feel inadequate with our upbringing or education, and in these cases it’s easy to blame ourselves or others instead of do something about it. But this dream humbly addresses an alternative: take the mental posture of an absorbant child, humble yourself, and relearn to feel competent. 

Missing Class

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I’m absolutely positive I’m not the only one who has suffered this dream.

The setting of the dream typically looks like my high school, though the feel of the dream is more like college. There is this feeling in the dream that I’m going between classes in a full day of school. There is also this sense that it is somewhere mid-semester. I usually always find myself not in class, but rather walking the hallways to get to my next class.

The next part of this dream is always sudden and seemingly unprovoked. Somewhere in my walk between classes, it dawns on me that there is a class I haven’t attended at all that semester. I can’t say for certain if it’s a classmate who informs me, or if it’s something I realize by looking down at my schedule. Regardless of what instigates this sudden realization, I’m filled with dread, realizing there is a class I have totally neglected. I’ve not shown up, and yet I know my name is on the roster and I know that half a semester of absentees will come with inescapable consequences.

In college, a classmate confided in me that not only had he suffered from this type of dream, but that it had actually occurred to him in college for at least a month: he’d signed up for a class, and hadn’t attended it at all. He shared the feeling of dread and embarrassment, though the school and professor were pretty merciful to him…I would wager more merciful than what our minds were doing to us.

It’s clear to me that this dream isn’t uncommon, and I think the dread and outcome of this dream point to a rather obvious theme: forgetfulness. In the duties of my work, it’s easy to forget to follow up with someone, to miss a detail in a project, to lose sight of a responsibility. We are either stretched too thin or allow our minds to wander far too long.

I believe these dreams are our minds giving us a call to action to pay attention, to take inventory of not just one’s responsibilities in work, but to take inventory of all facets of one’s life. Do we make lists? Do we pay attention to our surroundings and how we can improve things? And most importantly, what are the distractions in our life that are getting in the way of our attention to the things that matter most?

Unrehearsed Play

I’d performed for years in school plays, starting in elementary school and all the way up until  high school. I had a love for acting back then, and although I had a lot to learn one thing I always felt particularly strong in was memorizing lines. I’d spend hours at home rehearsing lines with my parents, even making playlists of my lines recorded to hear over and over.

Though I’ve left theater behind, theater keeps chasing after me in my dreams. The setting is always on the familiar stage of our school. Sometimes the cast is familiar, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the plays are familiar, sometimes they aren’t…but what’s most odd about this is there’s always two assumptions I have in those dreams: we have performed that play before, and our lines have already been memorized.

The terror that comes from these dreams is that I know I don’t know my lines. Sometimes I’m able to realize this by rationalizing in my dream “we performed this YEARS ago”. Other times the play seems so foreign, and yet somehow I expect myself to know my lines. So I stand on stage in terror without knowing what to say to my fellow actors, embarrassed to be in the spotlight in front of an audience, wordless.

I’ve heard dreams of being naked in class are quite common, though I can’t remember suffering from those sorts of dreams. It is possible, perhaps, this is my manifestation of those types of dreams as there seems to be a similar theme in both dreams: receiving attention and embarrassment. Whereas in the dream when we are naked in class has to do with an embarrassment of vulnerability (having no garment, no mask, nothing covering us, much like the sudden vulnerability of Adam and Eve) the dream I suffer from has to do with an embarrassment of incompetence and speechlessness. I am afraid to be in front of so many not because of what I’m not wearing, but because there is an expectation of me to know what to say, to know where my part fits, and instead I am lost, unsure, and waffling around on stage like poor improv.

The theme of this dream I find very alive in my own life. A great deal of anxiety can come from not knowing what to say or do in a situation, especially when providing emotional care/counsel. It’s also a frustration of mine to be put into a setting expected to work and also expected to know exactly what protocol is and what needs to be done without any orientation.

The growing edge here is to use improv, and the theater imagery in this dream speaks to that. As a writer, I can remind myself of my creative potential and seek ways to be bold and step in, even when I find myself speechless and ill-prepared. That can be a growing edge for us all.

The Return to the Museum

The last dream has not so much to do with school, though the setting always reminds me of school. In elementary and high school, I recall multiple field trips to our near-by museum. We were blessed to have so many different kinds of exhibits.

The dream I always find myself in is that of biology, fossils, and taxidermy. I always begin my walk into the museum surrounded by a large skeleton and walls lined with glass cases of fossil exhibits. Oddly, the dream never really takes me anywhere else in the museum, and the setting always seems to hang around prehistory and undersea biology. The dream has especially been recurrent for me in my adult life to the point that sometimes I will know I am dreaming because of the frequency and familiar details of the dream.

I confess, I’m not totally certain of this dream’s purpose, though I have a guess.

In my work of counseling and in my personal writing, I’ve found a deep appreciation for introspective work. The skeletons and fossils of the exhibit are of great interest to me in the dream, which could reflect how I view the deepest history in each human person; to know ourselves, we need to understand our early childhood memories and family system. The “deep” element of the exhibit could either speak to a fear and fascination I have with the sea, OR it could be symbolic representation of the depth to the human person, and my personal affinity for anything that goes beyond the surface of the human being. Lastly, the bestial nature of the exhibit–because the exhibits never show human skeletons or remains–could speak to a fascination or attention I have to bestial impulses, the “passions” of a person that lie deep and spawn out of our earliest traumas and experiences.

Why I find myself skeptical of this interpretation is because the interpretation doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about myself I don’t already know. I have come to terms with my fascination for people’s stories, for the impulses that we bury and come from our bumpy pasts. Perhaps the dream invites me to continue to mine my own story and take inventory of my own fossilized beasts that can come to life once in a while. Perhaps it’s my subconscious just giving me a break and showing a pleasant mirror of my own inner interests. It’s hard to say for sure on this one.

In Conclusion…

Especially today where our upbringing is so saturated in a setting of education–essentially our schools have become our foster parents with how much time we are exposed to the classroom setting–I think it’s important we give credence to dreams that are within a school setting. These dreams not only speak directly to our inner child–because our first great memories are largely to be had in school–but because the very symbol of school is that of growth and learning. When we pay attention to our dreams of school, we might glean areas of our life that we are supposed to grow from, as if it is our inner child grabbing us by the hand and telling us, “we need to go back for another lesson we missed”.

What kinds of dreams do you have of school? What do you think they are trying to teach you?

Kid Holding Hands Young Toddler Father Child Baby

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