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The Fourth Year Dreams

Up until recently, my dreams kept throwing me back into the fourth year of high school, telling me that I still had credits to finish in order to graduate, even though I have three master’s degrees in real life.

The literal truth of the dreams is that, when I went there, my high school had a three year program. It was an Orthodox Jewish high school, and the idea was to graduate us a year early so we’d feel obligated to spend a year in Israel before college. The other literal truth is that I fell apart during my last (third) year of high school, and even though I went to college the next fall (at age sixteen), I was unable to stay there.

Looking back, I think part of the reason for the dreams was wish fulfillment. I wanted to go back to high school and do a fourth year, because I wanted to believe that my collapse in college was caused by not being old enough to handle it. Maybe, I hoped, if I could go back and finish that last year of high school, I would be all better.



And in those early versions of the dreams, my orthodox Jewish high school had a drama department, and art classes, and a therapist (none of which we had in real life). But the dreams still focused mostly on the anxiety and stress of high school, with all of the social failures, and the tests in math, or physics, or social studies that I was wildly unprepared to take.

The dreams kept going, even as I got older and worked to get better. It was frustrating to keep returning to high school as I slept, because when I was awake I knew how much progress I’d made in therapy, in writing, in self-awareness, and in my overall mental health. But the dreams kept reminding me of all of the things I still couldn’t do. With each year I fell further behind my peers: in relationships, and work, and money, and independence. I never stopped trying to move forward, but for every mile my peers traveled I made it about a foot into the future.

Ellie and the Afikomen

“Every step counts, Mommy.”

There’s a theory that if you can work through the issues behind your dreams, then you’ll stop having those dreams, but for a long time I felt like these fourth year dreams were going to haunt me for the rest of my life. And the thing is, along with all of the anxiety and failure and humiliation of the dreams, there was also a sense of possibility; that I could have another chance to learn what I couldn’t learn the first time through.

Gradually, even during the dreams, I was able to remember the work I’d done, and the degrees I’d earned in the real world. And then, after graduating with my Masters’ degree in social work last year, the dreams changed again, and even though I was still back in my fourth year of high school, this time I was surrounded by my former classmates, all at our current ages, and all trying to finish those last few credits. And then, sometime this past fall, around the same time I started teaching synagogue school a few hours a week, my high school best friend appeared in the fourth year dreams with me, despite being married with four children and living in Israel, and it was such a relief to have her there with me, and to feel like we were in this fight together, even if it was just a dream.


And I started to realize that I’m not alone in this unfinished feeling. When I looked at everyone else’s lives on social media, they seemed to be overachieving and rushing ahead and having a great time, but the dreams were telling me that maybe we each had our own unfinished tasks that we needed to go back and work on. Because we’re all still trying to figure out how to be okay. I started to think that maybe all of those kids I grew up with were having the same fourth year dreams that I kept having, stuck back in those old classrooms while they were sleeping, and maybe that’s why I saw them there so often.




I haven’t had a fourth year dream in a while now, and that seems to be a sign that I’ve passed a marker of some kind, and filled a void that needed to be filled. Unfortunately, other bad dreams fill that space now, with other unresolved issues that need my attention, and they seem to think I need to be hammered over the head on a constant basis so that I won’t forget that there’s more work to be done. And, really, I know that there’s still a mountain of work left to do, but it’s nice to take a moment and celebrate that some of that mountain may have finally been chipped away.


“Did you say chips?”


If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

72 responses »

  1. “Every step counts, Mommy.” Words of wisdom indeed. It is hard not to compare ourselves to our peers. Most of mine have far outstripped me in careers, family, even hobbies! But it’s a trap to worry about these things. Keep giving yourself credit for what you have done and continue your journey. Oh dear, that sounds dangerously like advice, and what the hell do I know? Anyways, great post. Thank you.

  2. And I thought ONE Masters degree was an accomplishment, you have THREE!!!!!!!!!!! You are so much more awesome than you realize!

  3. My dreams are very vivid too. I gave up on dream interpretation books 50 years ago. We each have to learn our own internal symbolism, but that’s a double edged sword however which way we slice it.
    Thanks for the post.

  4. Are these dreams consequence of shelter in?
    Congratulations for your 3 mater degrees. Amazing accomplishments.

  5. I have dreams about past traumas and have come to see them as healing. I’m working on trying not to feel like I have to do anything about them and let them come and go. Easier said than done.

  6. These dreams – the late and utterly, completely, impossible-to-write, dissertation, etc dreams, are so dreadful, Rachel! But, as time passes, and somewhere, even in my sleep life, I begin to realise ‘hey, this is just a bad dream’, there is a certain thrill to them – made more so, in the morning, by a sense of accomplishment. Or something.

    This is a great post (as ever) – made always easier on the eye by the hound candy!

    Stay ace

  7. I was married before and really hate how my ex-husband invades my dreams even though I’m very happy in my new life with my current husband. I have no idea why it happens, but I do know I’m happy to wake up where things are much better. I try not to take my dreams too seriously, or let them rob me of what I have now. You sound like you’re managing those small steps. Enjoy the present day!

  8. Interesting. I’ve had dreams where I was sitting a final exam in a class I hadn’t been to all term. I’ve had dreams where I’m still in college and in my sixties, where I had to wake up and remember I was married, with two grown children and decades of work. Now that I’m retired, I dream I’m still working. My mind is strange.

  9. Brains in general are complicated and weird, but fascinating too, and full of mysteries!

  10. Great u have three master’s degree. Try to write down your bad dreams on a paper.try writing solutions for it,like the possibility of you going back in time n finishing the unfinished. Write the results of your anticipation.if the answer is that your issue cannot be resolved, then strike that paper n trash it.take another paper n write your to do lists for the present, stay focused to achieve them.i hope after this u wouldn’t get dreams that make u feel incomplete. Happy blogging !

  11. Echo.

    During my graduation, I almost dropped out of the course.
    And I mistakenly interrupted a sociology class, which I had not followed, with personal questions.
    It would have been so simple, looking for the teacher after the end of the class and asking questions, so as not to interrupt the class.

    In primary, and secondary school, something similar happened too, when I abandoned some discipline.

    I abandoned all undergraduate disciplines that year and returned the following year. I decided to finish and then take another way. It did go what did I do.

    A recurring dream bothered me, I was just not following the development of some discipline, or all, and feeling like a “fish out of water” at school, accompanied by a very uncomfortable, depressing, and scary feeling. It did seem like a trauma.

    More recently, I already had the dream in which I completed the disciplines satisfactorily.

    Our dreams seem to be symbolic dramatizations of our reality and our strive for a balanced and peaceful configuration of ourselves.

    • PS. These are matters that I continue to process and synthesize, even though it has been so many years.
      When the end has entered the horizon of life, time and life seem to become an immediate Whole composed of past, present, and future.
      On-time, still, my apologies to teachers and schoolmates.

  12. I used to have the same sort of dreams, too…

  13. I got very good at dream analysis after my breakdown. Didn’t bother with books, just applied my own logic as my mind was working differently then.
    I often dream about school too, going on the first day of term for the 6th year and not finding the classroom, being late for lessons, usual stuff. I left in the 5th, didn’t go to the sixth as I ‘didn’t qualify’ anyway with only 3 ‘O’ levels. I sat 5. It was a traumatic time for me, sister married, going wrong, living with a bitch and her partner, money issues, running away, Mum never there when I got home from school because of sister’s problems, all slap bang in the middle of my exams. I hated grammar school with a passion, so was glad to leave and get a job. Now I dream about old jobs but in offices I don’t recognise.

    • I hope the dreams offer some resolution. I’ve never figured out lucid dreaming or controlling my dreams so it feels like a crapshoot every time I fall asleep. But it’s such a relief when the dreams turn out better than expected.

  14. Just wanted to say your dogs are so cute.

  15. Yay! ‘It’s nice to take a moment and celebrate some of the mountain that’s been chipped away’… you are beginning to recognise your many achievements.

  16. I cannot shake off my dreams either. They often feel more like reality that my actual waking life.
    But I never think about my peers at school, aged 17. I only know what four of them have been doing since, and that was mostly the pursuit of money in commercial industries. I chose to work as an EMT, and then for the Police. Lower-paid than their choices, but more useful to society and personally rewarding.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  17. If this can make sense and be useful, it seems that investment in intellectual studies and capacitation would be better used and carried out in intellectual work; or in a context that demands this background and takes advantage of it, and generates support, consequent.

  18. Rachel, I think you have summarized feelings of more than a few people. My recurring dream is about transfer credits from one year of junior (now community) college to my four year school not being accepted and making me return. Ironically, after completing his courses and being told he had sufficient credits, someone told my son he was one hour short before he walked in graduation in the spring. Fortunately, they went back and looked at his transfer credit hours and found another course they could accept.

    As for the maturity issue and not being ready, that is a different but powerful story as well. I remember the excellent book “Hillbilly Elegy” written by a Marine and Harvard educated lawyer and how he was turned down by Ohio State and went into the Marines. He said that turned out to be the best thing for him as he matured more. He said he would have failed had he been accepted by OSU the first time.

    Good piece. Thanks for sharing, Keith

  19. Dreams are powerful and I’ve heard/been told that they are the way our sub conscious processes knotty problems we’re facing all unaware. Like your feeling unfulfilled (perhaps) and needing to finish to be fulfilled. I’m reblogging this. I have had a ‘theme dream’ for most of my adult life and I’d like to explore the topic. Since your post here ‘sparked’ it, you get credit. I’m glad you have overcome that portion of your journey and hope you keep pressing forward. You’re doing an amazing job in my opinion.

  20. Dream evolution, that’s impressive. I keep going back to the same places in my dreams, a combination of made-up places and places where I used to live or work. Growing through your dreams is great. I’m happy you have done that. With dream-growth, life-growth, and dog-wisdom, the only direction should be excelsior.

  21. Pingback: Dream A Little Dream.. | sparksfromacombustiblemind

  22. Movingly told, Rachel. I admire your attention to what is important and your endurance.

  23. You have “unfinished dreams.” I have I wish I had gotten it right the first time dreams. My husband and I dated in high school, but instead of sticking together, we went our separate ways. We both ended up in terrible marriages. We’ve been together 6 years now and we are happy. I dream about the 18 we missed.

  24. I used to have nightmares about still being married to my first husband. When I started writing it all down, they stopped. Maybe writing about whatever your current dreams are will help?? The pups and I have nominated you for a Liebster award. Go on to our bog at, scroll to the post called Liebster Award, and it will tell you all about it. Hope you decide to participate.

  25. Do you remember the combination to my high school locker? I can’t tell you how many dreams I have wasted trying to open the darn thing! LOL On a serious note, I appreciated your exploration of those dreams. I have a parallel with the last semester of college and was helped by your thoughts.

  26. Aaaagh. That fourth-year dream is universal. I don’t know a single college grad who hasn’t had it. Stress must hard wire itself into the brain!! 🙂

  27. Wow as a fourth-year student getting nightmares of not graduating because of some minor mistake I made, your article makes so much sense. I look forward to the day when I overcome this too.

  28. Dreams can be pesky things. I dropped out of college then went back later. I have dreams that I think are related to that—I didn’t achieve in the ways others thought I should,

    Recently had an odd dream about my sister’s former boyfriend–he was breaking in to a nonexistent apartment building that I was living in in the dream. Not sure he will ever be in the picture again–but I am sure the dream signifies danger could still be on the horizon from my sister in some way.

    Dreams like that can be so much more distressing than just thinking about a topic.

  29. Our dreams always give us away, don’t they? I think they’re many times the gentle nudge to finish unearthing what lies unsettled in us.

  30. I think we’re hard wired to compare. Being the best we can be!

  31. congratulations to your fourth-year dream!
    You have a very beutiful little dog…
    have a nice w.e.

  32. The keyword “dreams” brought me here. So nice to meet you, namesake! I’m Rachel Tan HX. 😛
    Just wrote about Lucid Dreaming. Check it out and comment what you think! Would love to get to know you as friends too, in fact 😉

  33. Congratulations on mountain chipping. I enjoy your story. Jean

  34. That is quite the dream and analysis. You do wonder where these dreams come from and what they really mean. I do agree. We have unfinished work. Maybe now is the time.

  35. My husband has nightmares about sitting his high school maths exam. He must have sat it over a hundred times! I have no idea what the recurrent high school dreams mean Rachel.

  36. I will speak to my own half Jewish side on this matter. My mother’s Jewish side set a much higher standards of success for me. The crux of the issue here seems to be how much pressure people sometime face to meet such high standards. That perception can sometimes haunt people later in life.

  37. This post got my attention. I used to dream in full color remembering every little detail until about a year ago when all of a sudden I noticed I wasn’t dreaming anymore. Or if I did the memory of the dream would fade away quickly. At least in your dreams you kept your clothes on! Those naked dreams can be scary.


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