A planet of young sleepyheads

In the lower grades, snoring is almost unknown. But by high school, it's part and parcel of teenage rebellion.

I don't recall being a particularly sleepy child or teenager. From what I can remember of my schedule, I awoke, ate breakfast, went to school - or, in the summer, played outside all day - came home, ate supper, and went to bed. Everything at the appointed hour.

Why, then, do so many school-age people today seem to be always on the verge of wafting away into dreamland?

My older son, now a college freshman, is a good example. Beginning when he was in middle school, his bed took on new appeal. Like a living thing in its own right, it began to beckon for occupancy with increasing frequency until, by high school, Alyosha had the craft of sleep honed to a fine point. My hulking athlete could sleep anywhere, and in any position: on the sofa, in a chair, on a bus, lying prone in the grass, or on the cold, hard slats of our picnic table.

I once came home to find him sleeping on the floor with his head between two stereo speakers. There he lay, dead to the world, with a smile of contentment and his hands folded upon his chest as the station blared a Top 40 countdown.

When he returned home on vacation recently, he greeted me, ate heartily, went to bed at 8 p.m. - and awoke at 6 the next evening. "How do you feel?" I asked.

He stretched and then yawned his reply: "Tired."

Alyosha is not the sole representative from this strange planet of sleepyheads. Even in my 9-year-old's elementary school, there they are: munchkins with their eyes aflutter and mouths agape, as if under the constant sway of the sandman.

The middle school reveals a progression of the condition. I watch as preteens and young teens shuffle through the corridors - as if being dragged along, or prodded by some force. Perhaps it'stheir "better selves," who really do want to do well in school, who really do want to pay attention. And yet I am certain that if I were to present them with two options - a desk or a bed - every one would choose the latter and thank me for the favor.

The art of sleep reaches its acme in high school. In the elementary and middle schools, sleep is something one tries to seize on the fly and on the sly, in snippets, for the students are still somewhat abashed by this behavior.

But by the time they're in high school, sleep has become such a companionable and compelling friend that its lure is irresistible. This is evidenced by the addition of the snore. In the lower grades, snoring is almost unknown, as it would mean the jig was up.

But by high school, it is part and parcel of teenage self-expression and the yearning to define one's identity by rebelling against convention. The instructors must acknowledge and accept this as well, for I have observed them teaching undeterred while their students saw a symphony of logs in unselfconscious counterpoint.

Then there is college, the milieu in which I teach. Now I have been at this job for a long time, as reflected in the plaques on my office wall for 5, 10, 15, and soon - gulp - 20 years of service.

At this point I have my lectures exactly where I want them: lively, cogent, and with ample servings of "flash and dash" when I discuss the ins and outs of chemical reactions. I make loud bangs! I dissect sharks! I show pictures of volcanic eruptions! And still ... they sleep.

Not all of them, of course, but enough to make me ask myself: If they sleep in the face of all my pyrotechnics, verbal and otherwise, what do they do in courses whose topics include "relative cognitive approaches to passive learning attitudes among students with potential for paramodest achievement"?

On those occasions when one of my students nods off, I usually let the sleeping scholar lie. But recently I felt forsaken when a young woman bundled a sweater on her desk and made a perfect little nest upon which she placed her noggin. Then she dozed off - in the middle of my lecture on piranhas, for heaven's sake!

What could I do? I picked up my notes and, in a whisper, addressed the conscious remainder of my class, some 20 souls: "Please gather all your things and, as quietly as you can, follow me." Then I led them out the door and to an entirely different part of the building, where I set up shop and picked up where I had left off.

Fifteen minutes later, after wandering through the hallways, our sleepyhead found us. She has since stayed wide awake through every lecture and has even assumed a front seat.

Lesson learned.

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