My mother, Julie Caroline Stillwell, has hilariously vivid stress dreams. Most mornings I have been lucky enough to share with her (including this one) open with, “You’re not going to believe the nightmare I had last night….”, and end with both of us cracking up over watery Southern-style coffee. They tend to focus on one of the three most intensely performance-related areas of her life, listed in order of nocturnal frequency: 1) being head cheerleader, 2) her long career teaching university-level Spanish and English as a Second Language, or 3) being president of her college sorority.
Last night’s dream had to do with 1 – she showed up to the big game (not kidding about the ‘big’ part: we’re talking oldschool West-Texas football) and discovers that she is wearing her “ratty old junior high uniform” instead of her nice new one. I have heard many variations on this theme: the whole squad shows up to a competition wearing old-fashioned uniforms, she can’t get to the top of the pyramid, etcetera.
Last night I had the presence of mind to use my iPhone to record a chance conversation we had about her more pedagogically-oriented nightmares, still going strong a decade into her retirement. My mother was an extremely gifted instructor: I remember how much her students adored her when she taught ESL at the Intensive English Language Institute at the University of North Texas, where she worked for most of my childhood. The article I wrote for American Libraries this month touches on teaching anxiety and its exacerbating factors among library educators, namely, our lack of preparation. To dispel the notion that teaching anxiety necessarily subsides with preparation and/or experience, I thought I would share our conversation. The audio starts mid-stream, unfortunately – it was an opportunistic and surreptitious interview, and I caught her at the point of talking about what seems to go wrong in her nightmares. Like many experienced educators I have been talking with of late, she is willing to be amazingly reflective and candid (and don’t miss the TMI at the end, folks.)
mommatalksdreams.mp3 (3.5 minutes, transcription follows below)
What I love most about her dreams is that they magnify so many common challenges of instruction itself: the need for preparation, good teaching configurations, participant ratios, and the like. It is interesting to me that in her nightmares teaching environment always seems to be off, which was actually what she seemed most comfortable with during her career (she always says that she could “teach on the head of a pin,”meaning that she didn’t need things to be just so).
I also have amazing performance nightmares – like my mother’s they are a perfectionistic, subconscious exorcism of the real-time demons I know probably won’t come to pass (or at least will be somewhat manageable if they do). I get them especially badly before conference, etc. presentations in front of a live audience: I’ll dream that I won’t be able to talk, or that I’m trying to hold my teeth in, that the auditorium is full of feral, slouching hipsters, or that I’ll be so late that I have to run onstage (which has actually happened to me several times – a horror I hope never to repeat.) I once dreamed that the room I was supposed to be in was across an skating rink from me, and they were out of rentable skates.
PS: Happy birthday, Momma. I love you, and thanks both for your willingness to share our conversation and for endless patience with my stealth recording tactics.
PPS: I would love to hear more of these, actually. Anyone else have night anxiety terrors to share?
Julie: And it’s always, like, my environment for teaching is impossible to overcome. Like, there’s no chalk. The blackboard, even if there’s chalk, you try to write on the blackboard and you can’t see the letters. Or, there are, the room is configured so that, if you are able to talk to some of the students the other students can’t hear you. Like, they’re in two hugely different places, you know, but I’m supposed to be teaching them. Or, and there’s also, I’m always not prepared. Like I haven’t done my preparation, and I go in there and I just do something, kindof — diddly-stupid, you know. And then there’s always too many people in the room: it’s like there’s so many people that I can’t deal with how many people there are — I can’t teach them anything because there’s too many. And it’s just stuff like that. And then lots of times I can’t find the room I’m supposed to be in, I’m running around trying to find the room, and it’s just very fraught with anxiety, you know?
Me: Do you ever, like, overcome, or do you always end up anxious in the end?
Julie: I always, it always ends up frustrating. Like, I didn’t get everybody’s name down, you know, so I wasn’t’ like I wasn’t sure who was there, and everybody’s gone and I wasn’t able to give them the homework assignment, you know (laughs).
Me: You are a stress case.
Julie: …And sometimes the lights won’t turn on, and it’s just hysterical how many, how many (here I start to interrupt) everything in the world.
Me: But you loved teaching.
Julie: I did love teaching. That’s what I don’t understand.
Me: I think you had those dreams because you loved teaching.
Julie: But I always was nervous, I never got over being…
Me: Did you get up in front of the class and the nervousness would fade?
Julie: Yeah. But it was the beginning, like before I went in there was always a nervous time for me.
Me: That’s very interesting.
Julie: And the first six months, the first semester I taught in graduate school I lost about fifteen pounds.
Me: Oh my god, just from stress?
Julie: I would… I had diarrhea every day.
Me: Oh no!
Julie: Every. Day.
Me: Oh Momma, that’s terrible! I’m so sorry. But here you are, you made it through, and your students loved you.
Julie: Mmmhmm. And now, I’m getting a marvelous pension from the state government…
Me: Hear hear.