I was recently invited to read a story to a kindergarten class as part of "Community Reading Day." This is not the first time I have visited the lower grades to give a talk or read a book. What always strikes me, even more than the tiny children in their scaled-down environment, is the energy that pervades these schools. As soon as I walked through the door, I felt that there was urgent, exciting business here. Much different than the more subdued atmosphere of polite acceptance I find as a college teacher.
Perched on my little plastic chair before a nest of five-year-olds, I was peppered with questions, stories, and expressions of unabated glee. The whole experience lasted only 40 minutes, but I realized the kids could have gone on indefinitely with their intense, unbounded enthusiasm. My every word, my every gesture elicited comment and exclamation.
As I walked down the hallway toward the exit, I peered into another classroom just as the little ones were curling up with their blankets for "nap time." I lingered to observe the synchrony of the preparations: the coordinated movement to the napping area, the quieting down, the lowering of heads, and the at-first slow and then precipitous drifting off to sleep.
An official nap time. Why is this restricted to kindergarten and sometimes the first grade? What a wonderful, natural, refreshing concept. Surely Thoreau would have approved of stopping the clock in the middle of the day to pull the silence in around oneself and put out a "Do Not Disturb" sign for 30 minutes or so.
I smile when I recall Lyndon Johnson, that most unselfconscious of presidents. He took a daily nap. Put his pajamas on every afternoon for a rejuvenating snooze, despite the turbulence of the times that raged around him and the disdain of the press. Talk about a profile in courage.
Societies that have an institutionalized siesta are really on to something. A few years ago, while visiting Costa Rica, my then nine-year-old son remarked on the sudden quiet that descended on the place at midafternoon. I explained to him that people there rose early and worked hard, so they deserved to take a break during the hottest part of the day. The evenings in San Jos bore me out: The streets were alive with families, light, color, and music. I am convinced that their siesta was nothing less than a preparatory calm before the evening's storm of socializing.
I wonder: Would I ever have a chance to institute a siesta at my college? I doubt it. I sometimes feel that the purpose of higher education is to rev students up to competitive speed so that they'll be able to cope with the demands that the business world will saddle them with after graduation.
Yesterday was particularly hectic. As we approach the end of the term, my students are frantic, frayed, forgetful. I don't like to think that I have a hand in their anxiety, but as a teacher I am part of the process that drives them forward like draft horses. Finally, in the middle of their note-taking, one young woman blurted out, "Can't we just stop for a moment and regroup!?"
Silence. I turned from the board and looked out at my students, all of whom were looking at that one honest person with sympathetic eyes. I dropped my chalk, stepped in front of my desk, and told them to put down their pens and close their notebooks. Then, making quieting motions with my hands, I said, "Now, put your heads down."
It didn't surprise me in the least that they complied, every one of them, from the 18-year-olds to the older, nontraditional students in their 30s and 40s.
After 10 minutes I asked them to raise their heads. They did so, and we resumed the lecture, but at a more civil pace, in the full realization that when affairs start to demand too much of us, relief is but a nap away.
One could do worse than follow in the footsteps of a president.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society