Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Last First Day

Last Sunday night I had one of those nightmares like the ones that you had when you were a student and you dreamed that it was the last day of the semester and you suddenly realized that you had completely forgotten about a class you had signed up for, and then you had to take the final without having shown up for a single lecture or read a single assignment.

Only now that I haven’t been a student for decades, the dream had changed. This time, I had forgotten I was to teach a class until the last day of the semester.

I recently had a similar dream, where I had to take the SAT exam in chemistry. Luckily, though, the questions were geared toward non-science people. I remember that one of the questions was, “Why are chemistry sets a popular gift for children?” and I correctly chose “E: They’re not.”

So I woke from that one feeling triumphant. But the one where I forgot an entire class—I woke up so horrified that even when I realized it was a dream, I still felt awful.

The residue of that dream added to the strangeness of going back to work from winter break the next day. Twenty-eight years at one job sounds long enough, but when I break it down into fifty-six semesters—wow. Fifty-six times—and that’s not even counting the years I spent as a TA—I’ve walked into a set of classrooms with new faces in them, new expectations, new books, new techniques, new courses. And this is the last one.

The beginning of the semester is always challenging, as students come and go, drop a class, add one, switch sections or levels. I try to learn all my students’ names by the end of the first week, a task made more difficult as my gray matter shrinks with age but also a lot easier in the last few years because of the class photos I can access. But it’s exhilarating, too, as I feel out my students and find their strengths and weaknesses, as I try to set the tone for the semester: lively and relaxed, but with the expectation of hard work. A hard balance, as is the balance between formality and approachability.

So I kept examining myself all day to see if the awkwardness I felt was just the usual gear-shifting, or if it had to do with my recognition that this is the last time. And I just don’t know. I’ll have to wait until the semester is well underway before I can really tell.

I’ll let you know.


  1. And last night I dreamed that I was frantically trying to pack up a vacation house to make a ferry--boxes and boxes of books later, I missed the ferry. Don't need Dr. Freud to tell me what that one means!

  2. I still have that dream! (Both the missing class and the packing up my stuff.) They must be pretty common anxiety dreams.

  3. I never had the packing one before--I think it's telling me that I'm afraid I'll miss the boat if I don't hurry!

  4. I love how literal our brains can be. I once had a friend who dreamed that her fiance and his family were going to go skydiving and were at the plane's open door. But she was terrified. They jumped. She didn't understand it. Until we talked about how afraid she was of taking the plunge!

  5. Tracy, I really got a kick out of your dream about the SAT question about kids and chemistry sets. I love the way dreams take little details out of context and make them make sense in a weird way. I think the dream means you are ready for your career change. You are well prepared to immerse yourself full time in what kids want and need.

  6. I felt so smug about that answer! It all ties in, though--in the spring I'll be in Princeton writing exam questions for the SAT II Italian test. I guess SATs are on my mind!