Last night, I had the following dream. I woke up and wrote the dream down, and here is the unedited transcript of what I wrote:
I was back in high school, but not the school I attended when I was a teenager — which was in a solidly middle to upper middle class, mostly white neighborhood. This high school of my dreams felt more like the neighborhood I live in now: more urban, much more diverse, and many more students who lack economic privilege. Still, my sense in the dream was that the school was a vibrant community where I fit in and had friends.
It was that last day before Thanksgiving break, a Monday or a Tuesday at the beginning of that week. It was toward the end of the day, perhaps there was an after-school program for kids (like me) whose parents would not be at home (again, this is not like my experience from my adolescence, when my mother did not work outside the home). A large number of students were gathered in the cafeteria which had been turned into an impromptu study hall, of course, we were kids, so there was as much socializing and studying going on. Still, I was working on a project that would require the use of a computer and a printer.
There was an announcement: the school’s library had been taken over by a private company, a corporation that would manage the library in exchange for being paid as an outside contractor by the school board.I thought this arrangement was bad news, as did many of my peers. The new “corporate library” was slated to open the day after we returned from our break. But since the actual school day had already ended, the new corporation was now moving in, setting up their equipment, and was now technically in charge of the operation.
Along with a number of other students, I headed over to the library because I wanted to use one of the computers. Other students were heading over to use photocopiers or other equipment housed in the library.
But when we got there, we found that the library was only letting people in one at a time, with several of the new “employees” — all white, and wearing corporate attire — running around with clipboards, telling students what they could or could not do.
Apparently, you could only have access to the equipment once you reserved a time slot and now there was a fee associated with using any of the tech (previously it had all been freely available on first-come, first-served basis). While I didn’t like these new arrangements, I still wanted to use the computer so I stood in line. When I got to the woman with the clipboard, I explained that I wanted to use one of the computers to complete a document and print it out. I signed in for one of the available time slots and then she said, “Have you been approved yet?”
“I didn’t know you needed to be approved.”
“Yes, usage of the library computers now requires the approval of the library committee. You will have to wait here until the committee has a chance to review your request.”
“How long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know, you just have to be patient.”
I didn’t see any point in standing there and wasting my time. So I said to the woman, “Forget about it. I’m lucky, I have a computer and a printer at home. I don’t like having to use my own paper and ink, but you’re going to charge me anyway to use the tech here. So scratch my name off your list and I’ll just do my work at home.”
She gave me a prim smile as she removed my name from her clipboard, and I walked back to the cafeteria, seething.
Back with my friends, I was seated at a large table where most people were chatting and laughing. I checked my bag, hoping my laptop would be there. But it wasn’t. Instead, there were a lot of cookies and other treats. Some of the goodies in my bag were presents given to me by some of my friends (one bag of chocolate frosted cookies had come from Richard, a friend in real life who attends my church and volunteers with the RCIA program). Without thinking about it, I ate several of the cookies, and then realized this was violating my diet, and I needed to count the calories; but it was too late, the cookies were eaten. I was still angry about the library. I decided I should put the cookies out and just let friends grab them and enjoy them. I also thought I should just give them away to people, but I wanted to make sure that I didn’t accidentally give the same bag of cookies back to someone who had given that bag to me. I saw my friend Larry (an actual friend from my high school years) as he walked by, and we spoke briefly. I was so angry about the library and was mad at myself for breaking my diet.
I wondered if they were singling me out, by telling me I had to get approval in order to use their services. Was it how I was dressed? I had long hair, jeans and a t-shirt. If I got a hair cut and wore a coat and tie to school, would they be more likely to let me use the equipment without a hassle? I thought about it, but I wasn’t sure. Maybe this was just their way of controlling who had access to the equipment, and it wasn’t about how I looked, but about who I was. Maybe this was their way of keeping the troublemakers and rabble-rousers in line (I didn’t think of myself as a “troublemaker” and “rabble-rouser,” but maybe I was one).
Then the scene of the dream changed, and I was standing in front of a blackboard, explaining to a group of my fellow schoolmates why I was so opposed to the privatization of the library.
“Here’s the problem. The school board has only so much money it can invest in our library. On the surface, it looks like they’ve done a good job hiring this outside company; they come in, invest money in new technology, new services, drawing on their own capital resources that the school board doesn’t have. Supposedly the corporation will make its investment back over the years of the contract, but in the meantime there’s this big investment up front. Sound pretty good, right?
“But there’s a catch. Remember, the corporation’s primary mission is not to serve students, it’s to make money — for their owners and investors. They are going to do what they have to do to make the library a profit center, from day one. Yes, they’re installing all this shiny new equipment, but they’re making us pay to use it. That disproportionally burdens students from lower income households. Students from more middle class backgrounds like myself are less likely to need the equipment, and they know this. So they happily watch students like me take our work home, which reduces the demand for the tech in the library and allows them to get away with installing less equipment. And the equipment they do install, they charge access to, which again places more of a burden on those who are less likely to be able to afford it.
“But that’s not all. For a business like this, what is their largest controllable expense? Maybe not the largest expense overall, but the largest expense they can actually mitigate by their policies? It’s payroll. So you know that, over time, the employees in the library will be paid less and less, particularly in comparison to library employees at schools where the school board owns and operates the library. By paying employees less, and/or having fewer employees to begin with, it places more of a burden on the actual employees, the people here at the school who are tasked with serving us students. They get paid less, which means we ultimately get a lower caliber of librarian. Where does that money ‘saved’ from the reduced payroll go? Not back to the school, not back to us students, but straight into the pockets of the owners and investors. So the entire thing is a scam, to place more burdens on poor and middle class students (and our tax-paying families) in order to line the pockets of the upper-middle class investors and owners.”
As I spoke, I could hear murmurs of understanding — and anger — from my fellow students who were listening to me. I realized that suddenly I was going to be a leader in the anti-corporate-library movement. I was nervous about the idea of being a “leader” in a protest movement. But I knew somebody had to do it. I also knew I was being watched, by the librarians and the administration. They would be looking for any chance to expel me. I was a senior, I would be graduating soon. I had a lot at stake. But this situation with the library was just wrong, and I knew I had to fight it. If they expelled me, so be it; I would just lead the fight from the outside.
I think asking “What does a dream mean?” is a little like asking what a poem means. Still, I suppose there is a long history interpreting dreams (the book of Genesis, Artemidorus, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Edgar Cayce all leap to mind) so I’ll close this post with a few thoughts about this dream.
First, the matter with the cookies and sweets. I am currently working the Noom program (and it’s working for me, I’ve lost some 15 pounds in less than two months!). I’m excited about the weight I’ve lost, but anxious about the long-term task of keeping it off (I’m the kind of person who can lose weight when I put my mind to it, but when I’m not actively “dieting” my weight slowly creeps back up. So my goal is about losing and more about learning and sustaining a healthy ongoing relationship with food and my body). The dream is playfully reminding myself that I tend to indulge in emotional eating when I feel stressed, or angry, or sad. Nothing earth-shattering here, but I suppose it’s important to bear it in mind.
I have no idea where the central plot of the dream — the corporation turning a high school library into a profit center, and me rather unwillingly being thrust into the role of the leader of movement opposing this — comes from. I don’t recall reading any story about this. It somewhat reminds me of a chapter in my own life, for between 1983 and 1997 I worked for three different companies that managed college and university bookstores, so some of the economic issues were the same, although some were different (generally speaking, the privatized bookstores became more profitable because of a better mix of gift items, like t-shirts and sweatshirts with the university logo, so there was less of the kind of economic injustice as I described in response the library in my dream).
The idea of the corporation controlling access to communications technology is something that bugs me in real life; it seems that as the lines separating news and entertainment and profit have blurred, the media has become increasingly partisan (think: Fox News, but also CNN) and that contributes to the polarization in our country. So I do think there’s a bit of the fox in the henhouse situation when we divorce communications and media from a foundational commitment to service of the public good.
But what bugs me the most about the dream is the idea of me taking on a leadership position in a social or political movement. Can I run screaming for the hills now? It’s the curse of an introvert: I can see systemic injustice, but I don’t feel confident about engaging in the hard work of fighting it. There’s more than one reason why I don’t write about politics very much: to begin with, I remain persuaded that spirituality, especially Christian spirituality, can both nurture and challenge people from across the political spectrum; so if I allow my political options to shape this blog, in our polarized country I an expect that people who disagree with me politically will stop reading my writing — thus sabotaging my ability to proclaim the radical message of Jesus and the mystics to them. But truth be told, the other reason I don’t write about politics is that I’m simply not very fast on my feet: It takes me time (time for silence, contemplation, meditation) before I am able to confidently speak to an issue. Political writing is writing in the moment, in the fray. The “winners” in political discourse are those who can make immeditate pronouncements that matter. For better or worse, that’s not my style. So I stick to writing about eternal matters rather than temporal ones. Call me a Platonist if you must, but it’s also a matter of knowing what my gifts are (and aren’t). Nobody cares about political commentary over last month’s news. But spiritual commentary, even on something that happened 75 or 600 years ago, still matters — and might even help people today make better political choices.
So, in the end, this dream challenges me, and reminds me of how important it is to speak out when we see something that isn’t fair. I confess that I’m not always the best at that. May God give us all the grace and the courage to stand strong against injustice.