The Nightmare of the Lost Semester

It has just come to my notice that the New York Review of Books has been running a series on dreams. Thus far, entries include Georges Perec’s “Fifty Kilos of Quality Meat,” Charles Simic’s “Dreams I’ve Had (and Some I Haven’t),”Michael Chabon’s “Why I Hate Dreams” and Nicholson Baker’s ‘On the Stovetop of Sleep.’ Inspired by this, and remembering my recounting of an anxious dream related to copy-editing in the face of a publisher’s deadline, I thought I’d put down a brief note about my dreams.

Like most people that dream, some of mine are repeats, variations on whose themes occur repeatedly in my sleeping hours. These in turn are made up of some of familiar types: anxiety-laden nightmares about heights and wild rivers that threaten to drown me being especially prominent ones. Some of these have their own escape hatches built into them. For instance, when stuck on a threatening height, a surefire tactic for ending the dream is to, wait for it, jump. But some dreams are more stubborn than others; they offer no easy way out.

A classic entry in this list is the Dream of the Lost Semester. In this dream, I find myself late in a semester, staring at my teaching schedule, horror-struck by the realization that I have failed to attend even a single meeting of a class assigned to me. I have not given my students their syllabus; no readings have been assigned. As I realize this, I panic. If I start attending classes now, my students will heap scorn on me: where have I been all this while? They will jeer me, mock me, as I walk in.  I would have to stand there, the target of their derision, the man who had kept them waiting in such utter futility for so many weeks now. The shame of such a public humiliation would be too much to bear. In the construction of the dream, no complaints have been tendered to my department, students have not dropped the class, or anything like that. Instead, somehow, I believe that attendance has taken place as usual, the students patiently waiting for their Godot-like professor to show up, sometime. The absurdity of this, somehow, bubbles through, and slowly I convince myself the college has found a substitute for me, even as I continue to teach my other classes. The relief from this ‘realization’ does not last; wouldn’t someone have contacted me about such a replacement by now? Perhaps my class is just as orphaned as I imagine it to be. So, again, I consider starting up the semester, even if a few weeks late. This courage lasts only a few seconds; I return to seeking refuge in the hope that the university has found out about the abandoned class and arranged for a substitute. And so it goes.

The Dream of the Lost Semester finds its roots, quite obviously I think, in the anxiety that precedes the start of every semester, as I finalize reading lists and syllabi, order books, check bookstore inventories and so on. And no matter how long I teach, I still suffer from stage-fright, those little jitters that afflict me just before I step into a new classroom for the first time each semester. Add those two up and you get this creepy little insidious entry into my subconscious, one that bubbles up every now and then to remind me of the centrality of teaching to my life.

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