Penkava: The secret lives of daydream believers

I am a daydreamer. I always have been.

I remember the challenges I had in school to stay on task because of this propensity. It sure was a lot more fun daydreaming about being on Treasure Island with brave Jim Hawkins than considering the proper use of transitive verbs in English class. And there was nothing like playing at Wrigley Field with Ernie Banks rather than multiplying improper fractions.

Then there was the time in fourth grade when my teacher caught me daydreaming in science class. Evidently she saw that my gaze had drifted from my worksheet to the window. I recall being jolted to attention as I somehow heard her call my name. I had no clue what she wanted, but guessing that she was looking for an answer to a question on the sheet, I randomly selected one and hoped for the best. I was wrong.

“Microscope?” I replied, with about as much confidence as a snail in a horse race.

“Michael,” she said in a pungent tone, knowing she had caught me red-handed, “you actually think that a microscope is used to see the stars?”

“Um…yes,” I stuttered, thinking quickly, “for the really, really small ones.”

After my classmates’ laughter settled down, I learned that my response had earned me a detention. But the nice thing about that was I could spend a half hour after school at my desk with my hands folded as I daydreamed about traveling to a really tiny planet by means of a microscope.

Scientists tell us the kind of daydreaming we do actually affects the depth of our forgetting the task at hand. The further back in time you go into the daydreaming past, the greater the detachment from what you were doing beforehand. And the farther away you go from your present location, the greater the forgetting effect.

In other words, you will be more apt to forget what you are doing if you daydream yourself to Paris rather than to Nebraska. And traveling back to when you were a child will influence you more than spacing out about last week’s exciting trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet. That’s why experts think it’s easier for daydreaming older people to forget what they’re doing because they transport themselves more years back to their childhood than younger people. That, and we don’t care if we zone out because we’re old and we can get away with it.

Besides, daydreaming actually stimulates our creativity. While we are meandering in the past and winding our way through our neuron pathways, our brain is taking us into deep, rarely accessed recesses of our mind. We connect bits of information and experience that we have never connected before, and voila, we have a new thought, a new insight, even a new solution. I once journeyed into the windmills of my mind and it finally dawned on me that Bob Dylan sang, “The answer my friends, is blowin’ in the wind,” and not, “The ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind.”

Of course, any conversation about daydreaming must include our dear literary character, Mr. Walter Mitty. His fantasy musings were made popular by James Thurber’s 1939 short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” On a simple trip to town doing errands with his wife, he was able to daydream his way into the operating room as a life-saving surgeon and climb into the cockpit of a World War II airplane as a heroic pilot. Not bad for an outing to buy overshoes and dog biscuits.

So I guess that daydreaming may not be so bad after all. Sure, it can get a kid into trouble at school, but if we all can slip away to an innocently secret life as we gaze into nowhere, what’s the harm being a daydream believer now and then?

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He once got caught daydreaming during Social Studies in school. His students had to snap him out of it so he could continue teaching. He can be reached at

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