School Dreams, Snakes and Shrimp
What do our recurring dreams tell about us?
I had that dream again the other night. You know the one—where it’s the end of the semester and you realize the final exam is tomorrow for the class you forgot you were taking and haven’t attended since the first day.
I hear that it’s a common dream, though for me, I never started having it until years after I finished college. Since then, it has been a recurring nightmare much of my adult life
Apparently many other people have this same dream decades after they finish school. I guess that’s not surprising, since psychologists say the dream has less to do with school than with current life issues. A few years ago in an article on the Psychology Today web site, neurologist Judy Willis hypothesized several meanings behind the dream. She says that the dreamer may be facing a decision or responsibility where he or she knows what to do, but is reluctant to act. Another interpretation is that the subject is at a crossroads in life, and may be uncomfortable about the future.
These explanations don’t quite seem to fit me. An explanation that rings more true for my life comes from Marlene Cimons of the Washington Post . She quotes Gemma Marangoni Ainslie, an Austin psychoanalyst, who believes the final exam represents something “testing” the dreamer—a deadline, a decision or task, and that he or she is anxious about failure or not measuring up. That sounds more correct to me because in my waking hours I’ve known the feeling of “not measuring up” countless times. Cimons says the reason we translate those real-life emotions into a school dream is that most people remember what “test anxiety” felt like, so they attach that memory to current challenges.
I have another recurring dream, and though the setting is different from the school dream, I think the meaning is the same. In my dream it’s opening night of a play and I am cast as the lead. My dream self has never looked at my lines and has never been to a rehearsal, and in minutes I am supposed to step out onto the stage and carry the production in front of a full house. The most expert of psychologists have said this probably means that in my waking hours I’m feeling unprepared for something.
Not long ago I had a funny variation on the final exam dream: In my dream world, I was telling a friend about the upcoming exam and my failure to attend the class all year when I remarked to him, “I can’t believe how many times I have dreamed about this, and now it has actually happened in real life!” Of course that’s when I woke up.
All my dreams feel like real life. Just ask my wife. I have disturbed her sleep countless times when I leaped out of bed to escape a poisonous snake or other wild animal chasing me in my head. While awake I have never been consciously afraid of snakes (other than a healthy fear of being bitten), but then again, one has never wrapped itself around my leg or aimed its venomous fangs at my face either, except in my sleep-induced imagination. And my imagination is apparently active enough to translate into some pretty potent springs from my mattress.
My wife is very understanding of this. Once my thrashing around in bed suddenly awakened her and she began, as usual, to calm me with her soothing voice, softly consoling, “It’s okay, Nick, it’s only a dream. Was it snakes again?”
“No,” I replied in my sleepy stupor. “It was shrimp.”
I confess I don’t remember the nightmare about the bloodthirsty shrimp, but no matter; my wife loves telling that story. And who can blame her?
What is particularly interesting to me about the “final exam dream” is that not once did I ever live it in real life—I never forgot to go to class, and I was always prepared for my finals. My recurring dreams in college were more about flying—not in a plane, but actually lifting off the ground and effortlessly soaring above houses and trees, enjoying the exhilarating freedom of surveying the landscape below. Some psychologists believe this kind of dream is almost the opposite of the school dream, an indication that the dreamer feels completely in charge of his life and on top of every situation.
Sounds about right; the last time I had that dream, I was 20 years old.
© Nick Walker 2019
What are your recurring dreams? Do you have the “school dream” too? Please scroll down and leave a comment below.