Sometimes I dream that I am sitting in typing class at Middle Tennessee State University. It's 1978. I am seated among classmates, mostly young women, who seem as confident at the keyboard of their IBM Selectric typewriters as Liberace playing "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
Meanwhile, my fingers are still. Paralyzed. No muscle memory. No sense of the layout of the keyboard. I feel like a monkey trying to compose Shakespeare.
I always figured this trauma was so real that it imprinted on my personality, like a fossil. Turns out, it's more complicated. I discovered an article in the archives of the Chicago Tribune that explains that college anxiety dreams are: "Not a reflection of how insecure you were in high school or college. Instead, the dream tells you that you are anxious about something happening in your life today."
In real life, I went on to fail the class. It was the only F I ever made, which made it the perfect metaphor for failure, even 40 years later. Any time I feel stress at work, this dream is in the shadows waiting to catalyze my anxieties.
Evidently, college anxiety dreams are about as common as hangnails. Our subconscious minds, it seems, are lazy and derivative. I would like to encourage my subconscious to get more creative. After 40 years, it needs new dream material. I would prefer an anxiety dream about snakes or an IRS audit. Please. Something.
The topic of college anxiety is on my mind because of two things. First, I'm teaching at class at UTC and see anxiety on my students' faces almost every day. Second, our older son has received multiple college acceptance letters, and I realize that he is somewhat anxious about what to do.
The kids I teach at UTC have two kinds of anxiety. The wide-angle kind: "What am I going to do when I graduate?" And the more acute kind, such as: "My 'check engine' light just came on in my car, and I'm broke.'"
It's the second kind that may find a place to hibernate, only to emerge every decade or two like a cicada.
At least anxiety — and the mental health issues that flow from it— is a known thing now. In 1978, I just thought I was weirdly nervous.
I try to tell my college students that whatever stress or anxiety they are feeling will pass, or at least change. And if they dream about my final exam in 2060, I want them to remember that by then I will be good and dead and therefore no threat whatsoever to their well-being.
My advice to my son is a bit more nuanced. My message will be that there is no perfect choice, no magic formula that involves distance times campus food score divided by the boy-to-girl ratio. There's only: "I think I'll try this college and hope it fits."
Picking a college feels like strapping yourself to a rocket and launching into adulthood. Really, it's more like driving a car. There are many lanes at the school you pick, and many exits if it doesn't work out.
By they way, after 40 years of practice, I can type like a maniac.
So a note to my subconscious mind: The game is up. Your little anxiety dream is dead to me.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-645-8937.