Why Adults Still Dream About School

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THEATLANTIC.COM

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ryandrake 6d
I feel like this is because school, especially college, and particularly exams, is about as high-stakes as most people's lives ever get, so they look back at that time as peak-anxiety. Think about it: you're being evaluated and the result of that evaluation shapes the next step in the pipeline, and ultimately the trajectory of the rest of your life! Well, at least that's what the university officials, professors, your peers and parents all tell you. You pretty much have a series of "one chance" events that you must pass or you're done for. Failure of any step is permanent, and affects your average (seemingly) forever.

The whole path from elementary school through to college graduation feels like a career development game where the stakes are raised every year. Fail once off the path, and it's Walmart Greeter for you, forever! It's no wonder I still wake up in a cold sweat over it, 30 years on.

khendron 6d
I always did best at the exams I had nightmares about. To the point where having an exam nightmare would make me feel better about an upcoming exam, I would actually start to worry if I had a big exam coming up and I hadn't had a nightmare about it yet.

Still today, 30 years later, I get these dreams. Usually when I have a big work or life challenge coming up. And the nightmares still boost my confidence (though the nightmares themselves suck).

CalChris 6d
This is quite real. I did EECS at Berkeley Engineering and I still have nightmares about not finishing something and this is close to 20 years later. I’m going to a BBQ next week with some of my classmates and I’m going going to ask them. A buddy went to West Point and he had similar nightmares. My guess is that it’s more prevalent in the very demanding and competitive STEM majors and probably architecture. I remember humanities classes as being a lot of work, nothing at Berkeley was easy, but manageable and nothing like the STEM load.

For my EE120 review session when we staggered in, the GSI consoled us saying if it meant anything, we’d done as much in one semester as he’d done in two and a half at his school and he was a Berkeley grad student which is insanely competitive to get into in its own right.

Dave_Rosenthal 6d
I remember being ~23 and telling someone a generation older, "Yeah, it's crazy; I've been out of college for 2 years but I still have awful dreams about being late for class and showing up for a test I forgot about." I was taken aback as they said, "Oh, I still get those." Sure enough, 20 years later, and so I do.
karaterobot 6d
> The reason school dominates as a go-to anxiety setting, Anderson said, is because school is where we build our understanding of how life works.

This was more or less my theory already. Our first, foundational experiences of anxiety, or at least specific kinds of anxiety.

I'm curious: was anyone here home schooled during high school and then didn't attend college? Where does your mind go to for the equivalent of the "institutional anxiety" dream scenario?

progman32 6d
My big problem with schools (and likely a contributor to my own nightmares) is how they treat themselves as arbiters of what is good and right, above parent's wishes, and especially above the people sitting in the classrooms. High schools should be treating their students as equals to their teachers at the very least. They're adults at this point, but the inhumane regimentation and arbitrary expectations continue. The odd power dynamic boils my blood. It pounded the agency out of me until more than ten years after graduating high school. Students are customers of the school and therefore should hold vastly more power, yet they're treated as cattle. Yes there are amazing teachers who do everything they can, but they're swimming against a strong current.
snapetom 6d
That is so fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

I was pretty traumatized with parental expectations in school. Starting from high school, to college, to graduate school, I always had the same dream at the start of semesters - I'm incredibly late to the first class to the point I basically miss it. It has a cascading effect where in the dream, I basically feel doomed to be behind all semester. I've never had this dream outside of when I was a student, and that includes a very long hiatus in finishing college.

This is story is one of those things where you read it and the explanation is so obvious, but it never hit you until you see it written out.

hcarvalhoalves 6d
I used to dream about school/college, but stopped after my 30s – nowadays it's such a distant memory that it feels like a previous / someone else's life.
smm11 6d
I'm late for class and can't remember my locker combination, every night going on 50 years.
pram 6d
I have dreams of still being in the military. I always think “I couldn’t have been stupid enough to reenlist, this isn’t possible” while it’s happening.
cmrdporcupine 6d
There isn't a week when I don't have a day where I feel like a total monster at 7:15am trying like crazy to motivate my frustrated and anxious teenager off to high school and asking her about her homework and the like...

And then promptly waltz upstairs with my coffee, sit in front my computer, read the news and (mostly) happily write program on computers all day, while playing with my border collies and walking through my hobby vineyard in my spare time.

School sucked for me, and I kinda... turned out despite it... but I somehow have to get my kids through it.

jprd 6d
I had undiagnosed ADHD, Anxiety and Depression in college. Didn't end up in class a lot.

The dreams I have are from the same age range, but are about making sure I get all those entitled Moms their Furbies before Christmas Eve while working at Toys R Us.

It isn't about school.

krick 6d
Because school is horrifying! Why would anyone even wonder about that? Being tortured for 10-14 years, and all of this while being young and full of hopes too!
Ishmaeli 6d
I have the college dreams fairly regularly. Usually they are about forgetting to attend class for a whole semester.

But my other recurring dream is about being an LDS missionary again. I think that experience in real life was even more stressful than college—definitely more guilt-inducing. In the dream I'm my current self—mid-40s, married, kids, career, atheist—and yet somehow the church has managed to coerce me back into the mission field alongside the 19-year-old true believers.

Almost every other former Mormon missionary I've asked about it reports having similar recurring dreams.

flashgordon 6d
They do? I never actually was especially studious so had not much pressure to do well. Though I didn't party either and sat at the computer labs (in the physical library at high school) coding or learning new things to code. Quite enjoyed it actually. Lucked out that back down under engineering was a low demand course back in the day soon entry into college was easy (kids for some reason at the time dreamt of being accountants and actuaries!!)
hypersoar 6d
Funnily enough, I have the inverse of this dream. Exam-taking was never very stressful for me, so I never had the classic dream. But when I was a graduate student and started teaching my own classes, things changed. I, an inveterate procrastinator, started dreaming that that I'd shown up to the final without writing it. This, to me, is much more humiliating that blanking on a test. And I still have those dreams today, as well as a few variations (e.g., it's final grades time and I haven't graded any of the homework, or I've been supposed to teach a class but haven't remembered to show up for weeks).
Eleison23 6d
I turned 50 this year, and I'm finally done with college for good. I will never earn a degree.

I tried at least 5 times to finish college. I honestly gave it "the old college try" over, and over, and over again. I really wanted to please my father with that piece of paper in my hand. But that path just wasn't for me.

Elementary school and high school were marvelous, formative experiences for me. The schools were truly safe, secure environments where the Catholic faculty and staff respected me and upheld my human dignity, no matter what. I was never hurt or mistreated by the Irish sisters, nor by the priests and religious, or lay teachers. Now contrast that with my home life where I was subjected to endless shame, emotional trauma, and humiliation. I basically wanted to escape to school and stay there forever.

Unfortunately this came apart at the seams in college, because guess what? My parents had always been the ones pushing and cajoling me through homework and projects and tests and perfect attendance. Without my dual-helicopter parents doing all the work for me, I was doomed to failure, over and over in college. So I dropped out again and again. It wasn't for lack of trying.

Years ago, I did have "school flashback" dreams. I was naked in class. I forgot to study for a final exam. I was being teased or bullied by classmates. Yeah, it was all on replay for years, but I worked past that.

I took a final swing at earning a degree and I got halfway to an Associate's. But truthfully, I did finish what I started, because I earned three professional certifications and landed a fantastic steady job. So in the end, my college days weren't wasted, despite all the credits I'll leave on the table.

I'm grateful for the faculty, staff, and admins who always treated me with utmost respect, kindness, and reminded me of my innate human dignity, and through them I was able to discern a vocation as an educator in my own right.

Decabytes 6d
I haven’t had one in a long time, but I would get Nightmares about forgetting to take a grad class, not finding out until the last day, and not being able to get my diploma because of it.

So similar to the stories in the article

cgrealy 6d
I wonder if age matters.

School and high school are the formative years of your life where you are essentially building who you will be as a person. College is generally your first taste of independence.

Do people who go to college as mature students have the same dreams?

balls187 6d
My first job was contingent on graduating. I would have nightmares that my school would notified me that I failed some required course, or didn't have enough credits to graduate. I would wake up and count the credits on my transcript.

After my 3rd job out of school, I stopped having those dreams.

Falkon1313 6d
I think it's curious, especially so many people reporting the same thing. Is it just people who were pressured really hard in school? I wasn't pressured, and could usually ace a test (or at least pass it). Certainly didn't ever stress about homework, and often didn't do it.

I don't think I've ever had a dream like that. I have dreamed I was back hanging out with my friends again, or exploring a weird sub-basement under the school, but nothing like what people are describing.

snickerbockers 6d
I graduated from high school in 2008 and college in 2012, but I still have a recurring nightmare where I find out that there's a class I'm supposed to be in but somehow forgot about and now must somehow redeem my grade despite having not shown up for any lectures or done any homework.
jimt1234 6d
I cheated my way through high school. I had a scam for every class, every test, every homework assignment. So yeah, I had dreams about school, but mine were more about me feeling guilty. They typically went like this: Some bureaucrat did an audit of all the school work from my high school during the late-80s and somehow identified me as a cheater, so the school revoked my diploma. My college found out, so they revoked my degree. My employer found out, so they fired me. The dream usually ended with all the other kids from my school laughing at me because I got caught cheating, and my life was ruined.

I eventually got over it. The dreams stopped. Once I got to a certain age, I just accepted I was a stupid-ass kid who made mistakes. Live and learn.

BTW, if you're still in school, don't cheat. Take it from me. I spent more time and effort on cheating than I would have if I just did the work as assigned.

baron816 6d
I ran track and cross country in college and graduated in 2010. I had been having the same dream for many years after: I hadn't trained at all during the summer and was completely out of shape by the time the cross country season was starting in the fall, and was going to have to confront my coach about it and get kicked off the team.

I told my former teammates about this probably two years ago, and as it turned out, many of them have been having this exact same dream.

karencarits 6d
> To put all the above in the language of latent dream thought, the dreamer's thought is not simply: "I'm guilty because I misbehaved and I fear punishment, just as I feared when in school I was confronted with an examination." Rather it is: "I'm guilty because I'm misbehaving [or wish to misbehave] now in the same manner as I misbehaved in connection with this particular examination. I wish I had not done undeservedly well in connection with this examination. I wish I did not behave thus. I am trying to overcome this old pattern. I am examing myself. But have I the strength to do so? Dare I share this knowledge with the therapist?

https://sci-hub.se/https://doi.org/10.1080/00332747.1961.110...

Al-Khwarizmi 6d
I clicked because it's a naturally interesting topic because I (like many others) have this dream, and I usually find The Atlantic to be good quality.

But this doesn't give any meaningful answer to the question, just some speculation that anyone could make and which doesn't seem to be backed by any scientific evidence (of course, I'm aware there is probably no such evidence, but they could be more straightforward about the answer to the title question being "we have no idea").

journey_16162 6d
I'm in my late 20s, still dream about school. But it's not like in the article. I almost never stressed about exams much. I never have any nightmares about it. Just dream about being in class, hanging out with people. I attended 3 schools total (primary, mid, high) and all occur in the dreams. Sometimes the people get mixed up, i.e. the class consists of a mix of colleagues from mid and high, or more rarely, the primary pops up. That's kinda weird when I think about it.
RalfWausE 5d
I never dreamed about school (at least as much as i can remember), the military on the other hand... and no, not deployment is what i dream about, its basic training! Whatever THAT has to say about my psyche...
kwhitefoot 5d
Is this a US only thing? It's certainly not something that has ever bothered me and none of the people I know who attended a university ever mentioned such a thing.

So I think this dictum applies: When a title asks "Why" first ask "If".

scoutt 5d
I rarely dream about school but sometimes when going to work I feel something is wrong because I can't feel the weight of my backpack - I must have left it somewhere...
goldorak 5d
Most countries decided to go for an education system that consistently causes PTSD in a large part of the population yet most ppl thinks there is nothing wrong with it. In the name of competitiveness the wheel needs to keep spinning and crush more and more souls.
jvanderbot 5d
Years of dealing with anxiety painted a different picture of these events.

When I get really anxious, I've learned to notice it not because of how I feel, but because of what I think about. My mind does two things. It will either distract me with soothing ideas (video games, side gigs) or (like TFA) it will go full anxiety and I'll hyper-focus on anything in the past that made me feel helpless, angry, or afraid.

Anxiety manifests as exam dreams, resurfacing relationship issues suddenly, body image woes, or just constantly checking to see if I have my wallet.

There's a much simpler explanation that works for me. Your mind is trying to explain the signals it's receiving, and it is grasping at straws by surfacing memories that triggered similar signals. It's a byproduct of a correlation engine and that's pretty much it.

I understand the obsession with divining meaning in arbitrary shared experience, but if my 350,000 hrs of use has taught me anything, it's that the mind is an arbitrary, guideless storyteller.

There's actually quite a bit of research supporting this, it turns out.

vertnerd 5d
You will all be happy to know that teachers suffer from their own brand of school dreams where they are unprepared for class, can't find their lecture notes, and so on. I just left the profession, and now I will be plagued by both kinds of dreams for the rest of my life.
Heyso 5d
I do dream about school sometimes too.

But for me, it is speaking up to the teacher (telling him he is wrong), or confidently not caring about what the teacher is ordering the class to do.

Or event confidently deciding not to go to school today.

I can earn a living with my programming skills, I have 0 reasons to endure school bullshit anymore.