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ASD Newsletter Volume 10, No. 4 Fall 1993

Teaching Dreamwork To Inner City Youth

Jane White-Lewis

I feel very lucky. I have always loved my work as a psychotherapist and Jungian analyst. The intimacy of the analytic hour and the analytic relation is a very precious experience. It is a rare privilege to enter into the imaginal life-to hear the dreams, fantasies, and concerns-of another, and to bear witness to another's transformative process and to feel oneself (as therapist) changed by the experience. In my work I am, it seems to me, a midwife, assisting, enabling new life to come into being.

Quite content with my chosen profession, I was quite startled a few years ago when I was at a college reunion and the partner of a classmate challenged my on my work, on the exclusiveness, the elitism of my work. We had been discussing therapy, short term therapy and group therapy versus long term individual psychotherapy or analysis. A cognitive therapist, my challenger believed wholeheartedly in the efficacy and value of short term therapy. He asked me, "How can you do what you do-spend so much time with so few people, a privileged few-when there is so much to be done, so many people in need of therapy?" It was true. Given that I usually see my patients two or three times a week for years, I have worked, compared to this short term therapist, with very few people. My response to his question was this: "Yes, I work on a small canvas, but my practice is composed mostly of therapists and educators, also a lawyer, an executive in a construction firm, and mothers and fathers, and potential mothers and fathers, that is, people who are in a position (or positions) to impact others, affect the lives of others. If I can work deeply and increase the consciousness of these people who are in contact with many others, then there will be that much less toxicity in the world, and, through the ripple effect, my practice does not seem so small." That was my answer.

But the question, "How can you do what you do?" stayed with me, troubled me and began to take on a broader significance as I witnessed the appalling deterioration of life around me, the hopeless condition of the poor and homeless in New York City, the frequent drug-related tragedies in New Haven. I ached with pain for the children, women, and men victimized by the social and economic conditions of their lives, and I raged at the previous president and administration who persisted in defending their privileged positions, with no vision, no heart, no sense of social responsibility. But was I fooling myself? Perhaps I was no better, reassuring myself of the social impact of my practice as I worked as an analyst with mostly upper-middle class patients in my comfortable consulting room in Guilford, CT, a beautiful, old New England town. Wasn't this a luxury? But what could I do? The problems were too immense. What could I do that would make a difference?

About the time I was wrestling with these questions, I decided to start graduate work at the Union Institute, a non-traditional, alternative, interdisciplinary graduate program. On applying to the program, my plans were clear. I had written on the psychology of nightmares and nightmares in literature. At Union I wanted to focus on the interface between psychology and literature and planned to study literary theory, theories of the imagination, feminist criticism. One requirement of the program has to do with social responsibility, social relevance. As stated in the catalogue, "The Union Institute does not support research in a vacuum, and it defines doctoral study as a force of social change."

This aspect of the Union program, social responsibility, was given special emphasis in the particular opening colloquium I attended. To prepare for the colloquium our group was asked to read Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities, which describes the wretched conditions in some of our city schools and the unfair, the "savage inequalities" in our school systems. This is a powerful book that should be, in my opinion, required reading on everyone's list. It is the kind of book that changes your thinking; you learn something and can't unknow it. Life just isn't the same after you read the book, at least that is how it was for me. When I went to the colloquium I had been considering reaching a course on dreams in the local high school, in Guilford, to fulfill the internship requirement of the program. But after I read Savage Inequalities and after I heard Toby, one of my colleagues and an Afro-American executive at Procter and Gamble, describe his plans to work with young men of color in the inner city to help them gain some sense of self-empowerment, it all fell into place for me. What is more empowering than knowing oneself, one's inner life, one's dreams, one's potential? I decided that I would not teach a course on dreams in Guilford, but rather in the inner city, in New Haven. In June 1992 I visited the High School in the Community (HSC), an alternative, magnet public high school with a student body that is diverse in both academic ability and ethnic/racial backgrounds. There are children of Yale faculty; there are students from the poorest, most stressed, most beleaguered neighborhoods in the city. This teacher-run school is especially interested in interdisciplinary studies and innovative approaches to education.

Meeting with the teachers, I presented my reasons for wanting to teach a course on dreams, I said that it seemed really strange that one hears almost nothing about dreams in school. We spend almost a third of our lives sleeping; dreaming is, as we all know, a wondrous aspect of being human. We are blessed with a dialogic imagination. Psyche loves stories. We love to listen to stories, we tell stories to others, we tell stories to ourselves in our dreams. But we do not talk about dreams in school. WHAT A WASTE! There is so much we can learn from our dreams.

I described four of the educational, creative, psychological, and social benefits of high school students studying dreams. 1. By considering the images of their dreams as metaphors and imaginal expressions of their feelings and concerns, the students could move from concrete to more abstract, symbolic ways of thinking, thereby increasing their capacity to think symbolically. 2. By studying and reflecting on their dreams and in tapping into their imaginal worlds, the students could get a sense of their own cast of characters and inner literature, both as a source for their own creative expression and as a bridge to literature, to the imaginal worlds of others. 3. By imagining dream figures as aspects of themselves and the dream as an expression of their inner conflicts, the students would begin to know themselves better. In dreams we find missing parts of ourselves that point the way to our psychological development; we also find the rejected parts, the inner enemies, the seeds of prejudice. 4. Increased self-awareness fosters self-empowerment, self-esteem, a fuller sense of agency, and more responsible life choices, all of which have social implications. To the extent that one is more psychologically conscious of inner conflicts, the less likely one is to project these conflicts (this toxicity) onto the world and the less likely one is to act out in self and socially destructive ways.

The faculty response to my proposal was enthusiastic; they loved the idea. By the time I left the school after my short visit, I was signed up to teach an elective course entitled "Dreams and the Imaginal Worlds" during the second quarter, November through January. The response from the students to the announcement of the course was equally enthusiastic; over a fourth of the school population signed up for the course.

Before starting the course on dreams, I had had minimal teaching experience. Through an odd set of circumstances my first job had been teaching. Although my field in college had been economics (international finance), I found myself, after graduating from college in 1957, teaching 7th, 8th, and 9th grade English at a girls' college preparatory school in Cincinnati, Ohio, not exactly preparation for teaching in a New Haven public high school in 1992.

I had, of course, been thinking about the course for months, but I had not done much actual preparation; i.e., no course design no lesson plans. As this was new territory (to my knowledge, no one had ever taught a course like this), I felt that I had to get a sense of the terrain before I could determine in which direction I wanted to go. A few days before starting to teach, I did, however, begin to panic at my lack of preparation. Trying to comfort me, an experienced teacher friend reassured me by saying that I had been preparing all my life for teaching this course, which was true, I guess, but undoubtedly more teaching experience would have helped.

And so at the beginning of November I started teaching a class of 18 juniors and seniors. We met for an hour four days a week, Monday through Thursday for nine weeks. Then in January, I decided to teach a variation of the course the next quarter to a group of ninth and tenth graders. The comments that follow generally refer to both sessions.

The major project for the courses was to keep a dream journal, to make daily entries, if the student could not remember a dream, there were many other possibilities-for instance, childhood dreams, in fact any dreams from the past, dreams of friends or family members, any dreams encountered in novels, short stories, poems, T.V. Also they could include any references to dreams or nightmares used as a metaphor-for example, "I have a dream," "It was a nightmare situation." The journals were kept mostly at home; I would, however, review them and comment on them several times throughout the quarter.

What happened in class? A variety of things. In one of the first classes, as an introduction to talking about images, the students made collages, picking out images that appealed to them from a pile of magazines. We talked about some of the images. For example, cars turned up in a lot of the collages. So we talked about cars. What is a car? How is it different from other modes of transportation? What might a car mean in a dream?

The students were most interested in understanding their own dreams, so we spent a lot of time working as a group on dreams in a Jeremy Tayloresque fashion. In both classes, some students were immediately forthcoming with their dreams, and when the class felt safe enough, others offered their dreams. Of course, not all students shared their dreams with the class, and there was no pressure to do so.

Sometimes the class would enact a dream through role-playing, creating a kind of dream theater; sometimes the students would use pastels to draw a response to their dream or to a dream told to the group. Sometimes the class would write about their dreams-dream the dream on (continue the story), or dialogue with one of the dream figures. The students also wrote about their earliest memories, family stories, their own personal histories-that is, the imaginal context of their lives and their dreaming. To understand projection and our tendency to color what we see, a couple of classes were devoted to projective tests, the Rorschach and the TAT. We talked about the literary use of dreams in novels and short stories, and dreams in movies.

Although I had had an intuitive sense that a dream course could be valuable, it was only in the classroom that I fully recognized the powerful potential and endless possibilities inherent in teaching a course on dreams at the high school level. Let me give you a few examples of what can happen.

There was Ray's dream as I listened to Ray telling his dream, I was startled by the remarkable similarity to opportunity to talk about sensitive issues in a non-judgmental way. For instance, many of the students reported dreams of police. A fairly typical dream involved the student being engaged in some drug-related activity and hiding from, arguing with, or running from the police. I asked the class, "If the dream is a reflection on an inner state or conflict, who is the cop?" their own inner authority figure, their conscience? If the student can consider the cop as an inner figure and the image of the dream reflecting an inner conflict, then there is the possibility of taking some responsibility for the choices being made and not unconsciously acting out, projecting the disapproval onto the outer cop/parent/authority figure.

Another example: Many of the young women dreamt of having a baby, and usually jumped immediately to a concrete interpretation-the baby in the dream represented the baby they wanted to have with their boyfriend. Teenage pregnancy is a real problem for many of these girls. Two of my 16 year old students were teenage mothers. What if the baby in the dream is understood as some young part of the dreamer, some potential that needs to be mothered? A literal pregnancy is not the solution for a young woman who wants to fill her inner emptiness with a baby, to feel more important by becoming a mother. The last thing in the world these young women, these children, need is to be trapped into a lifestyle that will interfere with any attempt to get an education. If the child in the dream can be considered as an inner child, inner potential, that needs to be mothered, cared for, educated, there is a possibility of choices and chances of escaping the hopelessness and despair of being poor and uneducated with few options.

As you can imagine, the teaching was not always easy. Some days were really difficult and discouraging. And I made mistakes as I struggled to learn what worked and what did not. Whenever I got into my lecturing mode, talking about Freud vs Jung, or archetypes or whatever, I could see their eyes glazing over (the fact that the class was right after lunch and the last period of the day did not help). When I let go of having to teach them and stayed with their imaginal material, anything I wanted to teach emerged; that is, the theory would naturally come out of the practice. For example, one of the students, Tina, dreamed of a girl she hated, an excellent example of what Jung calls the "shadow." Her image was engaging and memorable and offered an opportunity to talk about this useful Jungian concept without my launching into a boring presentation.

In the first group I made a major mistake in trying to teach Wuthering Heights which I had adored when I had read it when I was twelve years old. Bronte's literary use of a dream in this novel is brilliant. In the third chapter, a nightmare appears which shapes and resonates throughout the novel. But most of the class hated the book; the language was so difficult it was like reading a foreign text. They refused to read it. I even tried showing a film version of the novel; most of the class dozed off during the viewing. In the second group, instead of watching Wuthering Heights, we watched an episode of "All My Children" and ended up having a lively discussion of themes and archetypes.

All in all, teaching the dream courses at the High School in the Community was an enormously important and unforgettable experience in my life. Certainly, I will never be the same. I suspect the same is true for many of my students, as well as other teachers in the school who were especially curious about the course and by the end of the semester were telling me their dreams.

During the winter quarter, I will be teaching the course again to a group of ninth grade girls. I would, by the way, welcome any comments or ideas for the course from Newsletter readers (my address: 29 Broad St., Guilford, CT 06437).

In closing, I want to come back to the question I asked myself, "What can I do to make a difference?", and shift to, "What can we in ASD do to make a difference?" Sometimes I get impatient with ASD and our smugness and self satisfaction; we know how important dreams are to us and we talk to each other about them, share our work and ideas with each other. I do NOT, in any way, want to diminish the importance of this exchange which can be enormously valuable. It has been for me; ASD has been instrumental in both my personal and professional development. But can't we do more in terms of the world around us? We have so much unrealized potential in this organization.

My first real awareness of the transformative power of dream groups came during the 1991 "Dreaming in Russia" trip led by ASD board member Robert Bosnak. More recently, in listening to the dreams of inner city kids and taking them and their imaginal lives seriously, has made me acutely aware of the power of dreams in an educational context. So I ask, "When are we as an organization going to put social responsibility as a priority?" Each one of us has the capacity to change things in the world, make things better. Are we doing the best that we can do? My choice has been to work in an inner city school, an obvious place to start as there are many opportunities at all levels not matter what one's interest. Each one of you-writers, psychologists, teachers, artists, dancers-dreamers all-could find a way to contribute in a school setting. And of course there are many opportunities outside of the schools, in the community.

We now have more than 500 members in ASD. For ten years ASD has brought dreamers together for fruitful, enlivening discussions and connections. Isn't it time to share, more consciously and conscientiously, our riches with others?

Jane White-Lewis is a Jungian Analyst practicing in Guilford, Connecticut

 

 

 

 

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