Dreaming by Numbers

Dreams. Sometimes they are in black and white. Sometimes they are in French. But mostly they are in English, full color, and telling me something I need to listen to more often – or at least in earnest. And that’s not just when I’m sleeping.

It’s also the little nudges of ideas I get in the middle of living. Ideas that have a fickle persistence rivaling even my most stubborn days. Beautiful little bothers of ideas I try my best to ignore. Yet somehow, despite my planned negligence, they always come back, and I end up following iterations of them in a masterfully unplanned way. Each time a dream changes, another layer of meaning just gets added. One that I should have seen in the first place.

Dream the First. Before anything else, I dreamt of becoming an author-illustrator. If the idea didn’t come first in the elementary reading area of my school’s library, it definitely met me there many times after. How vividly I recall sitting there amidst small wooden desks and small wooden chairs, holding colorful books from the shelves that surrounded them.

On so many afternoons, protecting my dream in that space, I would sit and read aloud, speaking it into existence. To whom? To no one. No one except the pretend group who had come to hear me move through words – and watch me share pictures – of other authors and illustrators I tried on for size. I tried my best to mimic the librarian and my teachers, turning the books around to face “my audience,” letting them look across the room, tenderly as I had, but waiting, impatiently, for me to turn the page.

Many books later, 5:00 would come, leaving me to beg the librarian, “please, can I stay?” Sometimes, when I was lucky, she would agree to stay late, and I’d sit there taking pretend questions from my “fans” until my mother came to find me. This  after rounding up my sisters from the after-school program I should have been attending instead. How I managed to escape that, I can’t remember. But it probably had something to do with me telling the staff I needed homework help, which was probably a lie.

That dream must have taken me up through about the eighth grade. Maybe even into the first year of high school. In the years before things changed, I went on to have real public speaking gigs (thank God for that imaginary practice!), a kind-hearted teacher helped me publish my middle-school poem in a K-12 literary journal, another helped me feature artwork in prominent campus displays, and I continued to write, read and create. A lot.

But then high school happened. I changed schools and with that unplanned change came a series of choices I made to rebel against everything that had supported the well-arranged, uber-cultivated dream some adults and I had started to bring to life. Feeling the loss of those relationships and opportunities, I told myself that it had all been superficial, and went on about the process of finding a new dream I could call my own.

Dream the Second. Disowning my identity as “author,” I jumped with both feet into another artistic role. I had been playing the viola for a number of years, and by the tenth grade, I dreamt of majoring in viola performance.

For me, playing the oft-forgotten instrument was a religious sort of experience. Being in community with other musicians, creating something new each time we played (no two performances are exactly alike), that was the best of life, right? If it was, I chose not to stay there. Like its predecessor, I let this dream go. I did play in college and worked hard on some arts initiatives, but ultimately followed a course of study much better suited for pursuing law school or a PhD. And then I ended up getting an M.Ed. instead.

Dream the Third. Even more recently I had the dream of becoming a teacher. If I couldn’t pursue what I felt I was “here to do,” then maybe, just maybe, I could help some other human feel like it was possible for her/him to pursue wild dreams instead.

And maybe, just maybe, I could be the kind of supportive adult that I had so taken for granted along my journey. It would also be a way to give back indirectly for all the metaphorical bumps and bruises they saw me through. Because I had experienced enough to know that not every human is willing to do that.

The problem with my teaching dream, though, was that it wasn’t really my dream. So when it came time to “do” teaching – real teaching, in the classroom all the time, every day, as a profession, something fell flat. True, the district did not share my teaching style or objectives, but if I’m being truthful, I wasn’t paying attention to my own style or objectives either. I wanted to be a teacher for reasons outside the classroom, and while I liked being in it, I could not help but feel called to address the world beyond its walls. The things that called me to teach in the first place.

In many ways I was right back where I started. Me, sitting in school, reaching for something with the same well-meaning but privileged impatience that had driven my singular read-aloud sessions in a library years before. I had come full circle, me and my dreams.

All that was left was to really chase them.

Ryan Vale McGonigle

Comments on the Featured ImageThis photo I took outside the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. For all you book lovers, history buffs and travel bugs out there, I highly recommend it!

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