For some reason the projectionist in the Octoplex of my unconsciousness has been running triple features based on the theme of shirked responsibility. For example, last night – or probably more accurately this morning – Mrs. Waltrip, a woman I hadn’t thought about in a half-century, appeared in a dream I’ll entitle Maybe Waiting Until the Day Before the Final Exam to Come to Class for the First Time Was a Bad Idea.
Mrs. Waltrip was my 7th grade math teacher, and hers was the final class of the school day. I recall she had a verbal tic of punctuating sentences with “op-shoop” and a habit of pointing at equations with her middle finger, an unfortunate peccadillo given the immaturity of her charges. However, what I most remember about her class is how frequently I looked up at stubborn hands of the institutional clock being dragged like a mule to the designation of three o’clock. If it was a good day – a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday – I’d be headed home, but on Tuesdays or Thursdays I’d end up in the band room sitting in the last seat of the back row of the clarinet section pantomiming my way through “The Stars and Stripes Forever” or “Seventy-Six Trombones.”
Oh, how I wish that after I had failed the musical aptitude test for band in the fourth grade, Mr. Moody had said, “Sorry, Rusty, but I don’t thing band is a good fit for you.” Instead, I’d spend the next four years under his tutelage completely lost, pretending to play, marching in parades, miserably sitting as a 7th grader in buses with high school students headed to or coming back from Charlotte, Walterboro, or Hanahan. Mr. Moody was all too aware of my incompetence but possessed too kind a heart for both of our goods.
In the summer before my 8th grade year, he called my house one afternoon while I was on the sofa in the den watching reruns of Sea Hunt. He asked me if I was planning to take band next year, and I summoned the courage to say no. After hanging up, I felt at once guilty and relieved (I suspect that he himself was dancing a jig). Summer practice would start in a week, and I wouldn’t be with the band on the football field inhaling (what had become for me) the sad smell of freshly mown grass. I’d be watching old movies or hanging with non-band friends in the neighborhood. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Band came out that summer, a group more in tune with my musical tastes than “As the Caissons Go Rolling Along.”
But the thing is, I never dream about being an incompetent imposter fingering a clarinet. My bad dreams deal with academics, which, despite my disorganization, I was okay at. In this morning’s dream, Mrs. Waltrip is teaching a high school senior class I need for graduation, but when I show up for the very first time, she’s not angry but sympathetic, and is going to allow me to write a research paper to catch up. The equations on the board might as well be written in Farsi as well as I can reckon, but as the dream transfigures, I find myself at track practice running across a bridge with leaden feet, the research paper unwritten.
The question arises, why now that I’m retired with no real academic responsibilities at all – no essays to write, no essays to grade – do I so often dream that I have let my parents (both dead) and myself down? Why don’t I dream about winning essay or short fiction contests? Or sitting in Ted Savage’s living room with Paul Smith listening to “A Day in the Life?”
Perhaps we can’t undo what has been left undone.
 Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?
 Back then, classes didn’t rotate throughout the week, so her class was always the last class of the day.