That Same Dream Again…or Was/Is It A Living Nightmare?

I used to have this recurring dream when I was younger. Over and over, night after night, this dream would return.

The dream itself is very similar in structure to the experiences of Starfleet Academy Cadet Wesley Crusher in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Game”. In short: Bad Thing is introduced to Good People by a Nefarious Person. The Good People don’t immediately realize it’s a Bad Thing because they have been duped by the Nefarious Person (one downside of being Good is that Good People don’t expect other people to be Nefarious). A few people are Skeptical, but the Bad Thing has tricked them into thinking it is a Good Thing, and the Good but Deceived People first attempt to persuade the Skeptical folks that the Bad Thing is really a Good Thing. When that fails (because a healthy skepticism is a Positive Force for Good), the Good but Deceived People then resort (as they seem to always do) to force, and they attempt to force the Skeptical folks to comply. The Skeptical heroes use Science to show that the Thing is really a Bad Thing, and they unmask the Nefarious Person, and Life As We Know It returns to Normal.

Well, more or less. There’s a lot more running and chasing and hiding as our plucky Skeptical Hero (Side Note: I absolutely adore that Wesley – the teenager – is the one who remains skeptical, even as all the adults are blithely just sticking random technology in their ears and eyes – score one for “the kids really are all right – it’s the adults you have to watch out for”) desperately buys time so that Data can find a solution to the Game’s programming. There’s a sequence near the climax of the episode that resembles my dream quite a bit:

I’d be running down the halls of my elementary school at top speed, trying to get away from nameless, faceless people who were chasing me. I don’t know exactly what they wanted to do, but I knew it was bad. They had some sort of disease or infection, I think – something that could be passed from person to person. So far, I’d avoided becoming infected, and I was desperate to remain that way. I skidded into my first-grade teacher’s classroom – she had protected me from infection and given me a place to hide. As I came in, she had her back to me (of course). I lock the door, and I’m trying to catch my breath and give a report on the situation outside the classroom at the same time – she and I were the only people in the room, and I’d expected that. I finish my brief report, detailing how the infection was spreading, and focus on breathing. She turns to face me…and I can see that she has been infected too.

At this point, I would wake up: the terror was (and if I’m being honest, still is in realizing that my “safe space” was no longer safe, the people I had trusted were no longer trustworthy, and I was Straight Up a Creek with No Paddle (to borrow a phrase).

I finally stopped having that dream in college. I’m not entirely sure why, but it does seem to coincide with having it analyzed in one of my Psychology classes (maybe Abnormal Psych? I honestly don’t remember). One of the professors in another department was known across campus for his hobby of dream analysis (I suspect now that it was no more than basic literary analysis and a bit of cold reading, but my own analytical skills weren’t as sharply honed then as they are now), and my professor brought him in to demonstrate. We were given cards and asked to write about a significant or recurring dream we’d like to have analyzed, and I chose this one.

My card was one of the ones chosen for analysis, and the first interesting (to me) thing was that he focused a lot more on the school setting than I’d ever given credit for. My initial reaction to the dream being set at my elementary school was that it was simply a place I spent a lot of time: in Chicago, “elementary school” means kindergarten through eighth grade, and even though I’d transferred schools at the start of my seventh-grade year, I still spent a lot of time at my former school because my mother worked there. In fact, I volunteered for the very first-grade teacher who was my “ally” in the dream. So I didn’t think the dream being set there was all that significant.

The analyst, on the other hand, thought that was one of the most significant parts. I remember him saying that my dream had to do with knowledge, since it was set in a school, and that I had gone to the school to receive knowledge and learn, but I had been betrayed by the school, because I hadn’t learned what I thought I was going to learn (or something like that – this was about twenty years ago, so the details are a bit fuzzy), or I hadn’t experienced what I thought I was going to experience, and I felt betrayed by the people who were supposed to teach me/help me.

I certainly could relate to the idea of betrayal at that point; a lot of people who I had thought would protect me from the relentless bullying I experienced all through elementary school and high school had, in fact, failed to do so. I recognize now that the adults around me really did do the best they could to protect me, and I also realized that what I experienced as bullying might have, in fact, represented a false sense of intimacy, rather than a genuine desire to harm me. I think that may be why I don’t have that dream anymore: I’ve made my peace with my childhood. Every once in a while, I still feel an ache over this or that memory, but those memories don’t have the power over me that they used to. Which is a good thing; healing is always a Positive Force for Good.

At the same time, the sense of betrayal by the educational system as a whole has only gotten sharper as the years have passed. I’ve now spent… *counts on fingers* …seven and a half years teaching/working in education, plus another five (I think?) substitute teaching. The longer I’ve worked in this industry, the more I think that the system is doing a vast disservice to students, faculty, and staff. Tuition and fees in higher education are rising, rising, rising…but salaries for faculty and staff are not. What’s worse, we’ve been conditioned to expect this, and to treat even the tiniest increase as a Gift from the Heavens…despite the fact that our spending power is actually decreasing, since our “raise” is not even enough to cover the increase in the cost of living (especially once the years and years of “no increases at all” are taken into account).

What is even worse, in my opinion, is the way students are treated. Students should expect that they will have professors available to help them outside of instructional time, and more and more, this is not the case. As more and more full-time positions are replaced with adjuncts, fewer and fewer office hours are required. What I think is the worst crime of all is that students are charged the same amount of tuition, regardless of whether their professor is full-time (with a salary and benefits) or part-time (with neither – oh, adjuncts are “paid,” but it’s a flat fee per credit hour, with no benefits and no job security, and the fees paid are ridiculously low compared to the salary of a full-time faculty member).

So where does that leave me?

Sadly, it leaves me contemplating leaving the field. I love teaching – if I believed that life has a purpose (a question on which I am studiously neutral, as there is no data either way), I would believe that my purpose is to teach academic writing. And I’m good at it. Even though one of my classes didn’t “make” this semester (effectively halving my adjunct income in a semester where I really can’t afford that loss of income), I’ve given the class that did make my very best, and the results have been very positive. The students are engaged, eager to learn, and several have said I’m the best professor they’ve ever had (which might indicate a “low bar,” rather than exceptional performance on my part, but I hope it’s the latter). Even the idea of leaving the field is breaking my heart.

At the same time…I like to eat. And have a house to live in, and electricity, and heat, and clean clothes. And that’s…problematic on my salary.

Part of the problem is my student loans (a topic for another day), but it’s not just that. My poor car has almost 200,000 miles on her (she doesn’t seem to even be slowing down, but I know she won’t last forever). My laptop will be ten years old this coming summer (she’s showing a few signs of age, but I’m hoping a hard-drive format will help some of that). I can’t always afford my daily prescription medicines every month, and I don’t eat as well as I should because I can’t always afford either the time (another topic for another day: all the unpaid overtime I’m working, both on the teaching side and the “day job” side) or the money to do better by my poor body (which is rapidly approaching 40, and I’m feeling it). Not to mention the fact that I haven’t had a vacation in over ten years, and I’m tired.

Here’s the really disgusting part: A friend is recommending me for a job at her company. It only requires a high-school diploma…and the starting salary is $10k a year more than I’m making with a Master’s. More, even, than I’d make if I went full-time faculty. The thought of leaving teaching is breaking my heart…but my wallet is screaming, “Do it! Do it, do it, do it!”

I like to have a resolution of sorts to these essays…but this one, I think, is going to have to stay unresolved. I’m still not sure if my heart or my wallet will win this one…and at the moment, I’m not even sure which side I’m voting for myself.

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