The PH.D. I earned in my sleep

Stress dreams are a reflection of the seen and unseen stress of our waking lives. In general they are not fantasies set in unreal landscapes cavorting with mystical animals. Stress dreams too often are a photocopy of the days – a little blurred, lacking detail, washed out colors but intensified reactions, complex inner narratives, and all the stress collected in the crevices and edges. When I was a child the recurring plot was of men dressed as bees chasing and threatening to eat me; there was no great bee trauma or chase, it was the compression of my child’s mind collection of stressful possibilities. We all have our own versions.

For the past years my dream state has enrolled me in a doctorate program in a high level participatory action research project to better understand the lived reality of high school. The premise is that I have re-enrolled at my high school to do undercover research – to relive high school with the foreknowledge of age and academic research. Would I make different decisions: be a cheerleader at the football game, be better at math class, get perfect grades; all seemingly plausible seeing as I had already gained my degree. The overwhelming need to prove myself satiates every interaction in these dreams.

This stress dream is not some sort of PTSSD from my high school days, it is because I chose to work as a teacher at the same high school I attended. Nine years after I swore I would never come back, I signed a contract to follow the same schedule, in the same building, with some of the same teachers.

My subconscious took this as opportunity to let me work through as many sediments that may lay untended.

In high school I was an art kid, punk rocker, debate team captain, know-it-all. I was not popular, nor unpopular, just not part of the mainstream of my peers’ world. The idea of becoming a teacher, nonetheless at the same oppressive building, would have enraged me at sixteen. This background is critical. Some people love high school, some people envision themselves as teachers at a young age, some people live to please the authorities – I was none of these.

I offer this framework before positing the core thesis of this essay – LET IT GO.

In conversations with most people I hear about the ordeal they associate with high school. They felt or were told they were ugly, no one liked them, this teacher picked on them, this football player tormented them. Now I leave it to the professionals to assess where the line is between the general trauma of being a teenager and the actual traumas that people can experience. But in general I can say that high school is awful for most people. Our adolescent brains have to filter and file the world, and the first layer of that protection is to imprint any possible dangers deep into our consciousness. The teenage years are the intersection of the most chaotic components – how society sees you, how you want to see yourself, how your peers see you, the body that you see in the mirror each day, the chemicals that dominate, with all the fears and dreams. But in the timeline of a life, it is a very small amount of years.

It does not define you, does not have to frame your choices, does not need to haunt you – it is the jumping off point for evolution. Do not get trapped in that time. Learn new coping skills. Realize that everyone at that time was their own chaotic tornado, but now you get to exist in the world of adults.

Being the adult in those same rooms, with a group of teens, helped me to see so clearly what of my past was specific and how most of it was general to being a teenager. Talking to a fifteen year old is to see the world through reverse binoculars, where they feel as if everyone is looking closely at them.  Those conversations tailspin at increasing speeds until they are convinced the choice of a class will determine their profession.

The confirmation of this has come from talking with adults about what they remember from high school – a myopic mess with their lives as the whole world. And if in talking I suggest their conclusions are not the whole story, they get defensive and angry. I am certain that had I not earned that PH.D in my sleep, I also would never concede that high school was not a game set out to torment me. So I offer, from my conscious mind, my subconscious reflections, my academic reading, and my hundreds of conversations with teenagers, the best thing is to leave it behind, don’t drag it around for eternity.


to fail or not to fail, what is your response

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