About once a year, I’m visited by a dream in which I’m forced to repeat grade school. I find myself back in the principal’s office of my childhood, where I learn that all of my campus records have vanished, leaving no proof of my education. I’m forced to start from scratch the hard work of mastering multiplication and division, the voyage of Columbus, and even the alphabet that trails like a length of ivy in neat cursive across the top of the blackboard.
As the nightmare ends, I’ve been led back to my first-grade classroom, given a No. 2 pencil, then shoehorned into a tiny desk, unable to undo this curious reversal in the calendar of my life.
I don’t know what the dream means, but it’s a good reminder for me that nostalgia can be overdone. Although we all yearn for lost youth from time to time, my imaginary return to elementary school persuades me that I wouldn’t really want to be a boy again. I enjoyed my childhood, but I treasure the hard-won lessons of experience, and I wouldn’t trade them for the chance to turn back the clock.
These days, when I return to a classroom in my waking hours, it’s usually to attend a function at my son or daughter’s school. Last week, I joined other parents at Meet-The-Teacher Night at my son’s junior high, marching with mothers and fathers down crowded hallways, following my son’s new schedule from algebra to science, English to Latin.
I sat with other grown-ups in tables and chairs meant for students, listening to instructors chart out the academic year, the needed school supplies, the class rules for conduct and homework.
The mothers and fathers at my son’s Meet-The-Teacher Night looked relaxed and comfortable in the places where their children sit each day. One dad expressed relief and approval as he scanned his daughter’s schedule. For him, the daily curriculum promised a return to routine after the randomness of summer.
I also noted a slight look of envy in his face as he glanced at the sheet of paper where the hours of his daughter’s day had been ordered as neatly as a row of beans. What he was wishing for, I guess, was the same promise of pattern in his own workday.
As adults, our lives don’t always or even usually follow a clear sequence of subjects from breakfast to the closing bell. Our careers often call us to tackle eight topics at once, a game of mental whack-a-mole that can make us feel as if we’ve crammed for eight midterms before lunch.
With any luck, school teaches us the value of thinking one thought at a time — a skill we try to retain, however imperfectly, after we graduate.
That’s one thing I miss about school, although not enough to go back again.