No matter how long you’ve been away, the saying goes, you’ll still have the occasional dream about school. They come out of nowhere, for even less reason than most dreams do. They’re almost always bad.
There’s the one where you’re back in ninth grade and wake up naked in the middle of PE class (or AP English, or Typing II, or wood shop). Everyone has those. There’s also the less-common one where it’s your college graduation day, and your family’s sitting way up in the gym bleachers waiting to see you walk, but you just found out about that elective you didn’t know you had to have. Now the course is meeting under the dais where the governor and the college president and all the other bigwigs are sitting, and you don’t know how the hell you’re supposed to be two places at once, and then Waylon Jennings (who’s served as The Balladeer for this entire scene) suddenly breaks the fourth wall and calls your name for you to come up and get your diploma, which turns out to be an angry water moccasin.
Yep, school dreams are like that.
In mine, though, I’m rarely a student, and usually the teacher. Even though I’m no longer teaching, I’ll probably always have these nightmares—like the one with an enthusiastic student who looks entirely too much like my hell-raising four-foot-nine Polish great-grandmother, and who comes to class in a circa 1963 fox-fur stole and toting a moldy squished-flat pineapple cake in her backpack. Or the one about a class I forgot to teach that’s now been meeting without me, in a barn that I cannot find, for three years. Or the one that woke me screaming, in which a rabid half-human, half-cow administrator will stop at nothing to make a Biblical burnt offering out of me in the middle of the library.
Sometimes, though, I have a classroom dream worth remembering…
The classroom was the smooth, flat, sandy yard under the red oaks at my grandmother’s tiny Methodist circuit church. My English 1101 students were turning in their most important essays of the semester. It had just rained, and the moss around the red oaks’ roots was slippery. I could smell the arborvitae in the cemetery, and the oil soap scent of the church wafting out from under the crooked old front doors.
“Watch your step,” I called to my students. “It’s slick over by the clubhouse.” One by one, bleary-eyed yet relieved, they said hello to me, set their essay packets on the concrete block picnic tables, and walked back down the dirt road toward Mr. Mac’s store and the paved road back to campus.
Except for one student.
“Professor, I need an extension,” he said after shaking my hand. We had all been in this class together for the last thirteen weeks, yet this dream-student acted as if we had just met.
“You know my late paper policy,” I said. Exhausted from a long day, I began stacking the other students’ papers and sliding them into my canvas tote bag. “This essay is worth 30% of your grade. We’ve been working on it for three-and-a-half weeks. Why don’t you have it?”
He sighed and waved toward the grass beyond the clubhouse, toward the ball field where both my grandfathers and most of my great-uncles played baseball almost a century ago. “When I was in Afghanistan, my unit got hit by a mortar attack one night, and a bunch of IEDs exploded under my Humvee—”
—and with those last words, the ball field ripped itself from the earth and into the air, sweeping us into a whirling dirt-filled dream-tornado that set us down just outside Kabul, in the middle of the night, with APCs and tanks and gunfire and artillery and God-knows-what else making me think this really might be the end, and my student getting severely wounded and losing a leg that was somehow reattached in the field and looked more like a plastic human-sized Barbie doll leg than that of a grown man.
After his leg was reattached, my student kept narrating the story of his return home from Afghanistan. The dream-tornado picked us up and set us down yet again, this time in Mobile, Alabama, where he would have to walk all the way home to Los Angeles. In El Paso, he grabbed my wrist and yanked me shrieking along with him onto a freight train back to California.
In the rail yard, the dream-tornado picked us up again, setting us down at a bus station in L.A., where my student was gunned down by a car full of gang members and left to bleed to death in front of the 7:18 to Albuquerque. But he pulled the bullets out of his own torso with his own hands—I watched all this in horror as he narrated—and he lost a lot of blood and almost died yet again. This was why it took him a really long time to get back to campus, he said as the wind grabbed us anew…especially after he had spent a summer in Alaska working on a fishing boat, and nearly drowned when the Queen Susie II capsized in stormy seas.
“So, you can see, it’s been a rough semester,” my student said as the dream-tornado plopped us back under the red oaks. “I’ve been through a lot.”
“You sure have,” I said. “But I still need your paper.”
Then I woke up.
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)