I’ll tell you one perennial feature of academic life that I would gladly forgo is the inevitable beginning-of-semester anxiety dream. This time Bard was an urban campus high in the hills, clotted with fast-food courts, and a new music building had been built on the tallest hill. There was a long iron staircase leading to it, but it wasn’t the obvious staircase; you had to go underneath and around somewhere. I swear I remembered the layout of the new building from a previous dream, a semester or two ago. My first attempt to get there having circuitously led only to a boat wharf, I got on a huge red shuttle bus, like a metropolitan tour bus, and rode around looking for the right entrance. Meanwhile, my class was to have started 20 minutes ago, and since I knew the students and had already talked to them I knew they’d wait for me, but I hadn’t made out a syllabus nor Xeroxed any handouts. At least this time I was teaching music theory instead of French or something, and it was my regular school instead of a new one I’d just been hired at, but the lack of handouts is a constant. In my dreams I never have any handouts, though in waking life I could teach the entire music curriculum of the Sorbonne from the contents of my external hard drive.
Now, I could have told you five years ago what handouts I’ll pass out next Tuesday when classes start, what I’ll say, and, with dismaying accuracy, even what jokes I’ll tell. There’s less anxiety involved in the first day of school than in, say, at my age, a trip to the doctor, but I never dream about my doctor. Yet I do look on the first day of each new semester as a calamity: the day on which I curtail my composing and lose control of my own schedule. From long experience, though, I know there’ll actually be something comforting about the first day of school: since I lose control over my schedule I can go on automatic pilot, drop the stringent and only fitfully successful self-discipline, trade my stewing misanthropy for the enforced company of people some of whom are delightful, and – best of all – have a built-in four-month excuse for not getting any of my projects finished. So since the purpose of the anxiety dream can’t possibly be to embody any worries I have about starting my classes Tuesday, I wonder if it’s to create a real calamity in my head, compared to which I’ll realize that the actual day coming up is more benign than the image I carry around of it.
The most oft-recurring dream of my life was one I used to get that somehow I had failed to finish my undergraduate degree and had to go back to Oberlin to take a remedial class, or live in a dorm again. That dream quit returning after the first time Oberlin invited me back to lecture. I’d love to find a similar easy fix for the beginning-of-semester dream, but perhaps it’s trying to teach me something. I’ll try to be a little more welcoming toward the first day of school, and see if I can’t skip the trauma next August.