What I feel when faced with my sleep-deprived teenagers (not to mention their teachers)

Posted on 8 min read
The sun had set and so we hurtled down the mountain at great speed, but not so fast that I couldn’t click this shot.

When I was in Sicily I read a book about siestas1 and discovered that the siesta was, in the author’s opinion, the ideal time for either having sex or catching up on literature. It so happens that I once read a claim, in a Spanish newspaper, that the average Spaniard has more sex than the average Brit.

Maybe there’s some truth in the ‘more sex’ claim. After all, apparently 40% of Spaniards don’t read books and 35% only read one book a year,2 and yet many (at least here in the south) still do have some form of a siesta. Are they genuinely asleep, or maybe just watching day-time television? I wouldn’t want you to think that I was at all being scientific here. I’m not.

But some people are a bit more scientific about sleep than me

When he came to visit a few weeks back DeepThought brought with him a book entitled ‘Why We Sleep’ written by the sleep scientist Matthew Walker.3 DeepThought has not been taking enough siestas recently, or at least he hasn’t been reading during them, because last year when I saw him, he had the same book in his hands.

You’d be wrong to deduct from this that the book is a bore

It’s not. However, if you are one of the many who don’t get enough sleep you might find it a horror.

DeepThought and I did a deal. I think he was feeling guilty for reading so slowly. In exchange for being allowed to read the book before he had finished it himself, I would summarise my learning for him. Perhaps a mistake on his part. I’m not sure if he started regretting lending me the book before or after I informed him that not getting his eight hours a night would shrink his testicles.

This article however is less about facts and more about feelings

Here I’ll combine a few thoughts on how I feel about sleep:

  1. The tiredness in school: teachers and students alike
  2. The anxiety connection – a spiral
  3. The sadness of ignorance and the hope of awareness

Monday morning arrives and I head to school

Teachers reluctantly gather in the staffroom bemoaning the coming of a new week. Supposedly in the morning we are taller than at night, but at 8:25 am they seem shorter, as if moving with a slight stoop, their limbs longing to lay back down.

They wanted, it seems, to stretch their weekend out into the last moment – those Saturday and Sunday moments with family and friends are so precious compared to the chore of the week. I remind myself that this career that they’ve chosen wasn’t forced upon them but was something that they spent many years training for. They’ve sat through countless exams to be allowed this opportunity to teach, and yet they are going to start their week wishing they didn’t have to.

It would seem surreal perhaps if it wasn’t so normalised

Last Monday morning one of the teachers I assist didn’t turn up, so I took the opportunity to sate my personal curiosity. I quizzed the class on their sleeping habits. I discovered that at the grand old age of seventeen, out of twenty-five or so students, only two had managed to get eight hours sleep the night before.

I wonder if I’m the only person in the school with a fresh memory of what maintaining 8 hours a night of sleep feels like. When was the last time many of these kids woke up fresh faced? Last summer perhaps, when they reportedly sleep a good proportion of the day.

I reassured them that it wasn’t their fault that they were sleepy at half past eight in the morning, that it was just their circadian rhythm being out of sync with the city’s Department of Education. And then I apologised for informing them that if they weren’t getting 8 hours of sleep a night then they’d have to study a whole lot more because their memories were leaking like a patched-up bucket and their creativity was as strong as soggy cardboard.

They stared at me as if this was the first time anyone had said anything positive about our biological need for sleep. In other words, like I was mad.

They understand, I think, that sleep has some value – they do apologise to me, from time to time, when their brains fail them mid-conversation. They explain that they are sleepy. Some days some of them look like they’re going to slump over my desk. And yet, they wouldn’t consider their sleeping patterns to be abnormal. They don’t recognise the value of applying some change.

The teachers have an inkling that their biology demands more

When they talk about sleep, they at least talk from a perspective that they know they need to get more of it. The rhetoric is there even if there’s no follow up action. Societal norms call.

The students however are sceptical of sleep. Another girl described sleep as boring, as if the challenge was in fact to minimise the amount of sleep one could get by on because watching television or scrolling through Instagram is so much more exciting. One girl I asked talked about sleep being pointless because she wasn’t going to sleep anyway, she is too anxious to sleep.

Frankly, such attitudes terrify me

Being anxious, not sleeping enough, being more anxious, not sleeping enough… this is an interconnected spiral, and fighting this spiral becomes the central theme in some peoples’ lives. Bad sleep habits become ingrained and so freedom from anxiety, freedom to breathe easy, enjoy life and be creative is strangled.

If you are stuck in this spiral, then I feel for you.

And I feel helpless standing in front of the class knowing that sleep deprivation is so tightly linked to their mental health. These children are from a neighbourhood where the main industry is seasonal citrus picking, they are not privileged like me and their parents are not necessarily going to be able to fund their therapy and their recovery when tragedy occurs.

Bless their little cotton (or polyester) socks, because they’ve no idea what lays ahead

I am forever making mistakes when it comes to my mental health. Just this week I found myself fighting with an old friend and having to apologise for a badly worded comment to my sister. The friend was anxious and sleep-deprived, my sister was fretting, and I have been having nightmares.

Nightmares. And why, because I haven’t been honest enough with myself, because I haven’t been paying enough attention to my own emotional needs and in my own quickly spiralling way this of course meant that I wasn’t sleeping sufficiently which was making me grumpy and…

My body responds with a barrage of defences. I survive wonderfully, fighting down my foes, strategizing, analysing, making myself busy. And then I have a moment of realisation of what I’m doing to myself.

At this point I know I need to open up and slow down

I need to talk, and probably cry, and then I need to make the journey from my castle wall and back to my bed. I need to get my mind to somewhere safe where I can fall asleep and stay asleep because it’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my mind can apply its magic. It’s in the night, when I’m dreaming that my mind can finally process how I’m feeling.

If that means I need a two-hour bedtime routine, so be it.

Nowadays I am slow to realise, but in the past I was totally ignorant of my needs

In the past I didn’t make the connection.

All suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their own happiness or satisfaction

The Dalai Lama

If I had been inflicting pain on others for my own happiness that would be a rather selfish and unkind way to be living, but the truth is that when I am ignorantly barraging myself against the world I’m not getting anywhere near happy. I’m occupied, busy, surviving, but happy… no.

Happiness comes from my moments of humility and generosity (to myself and to others) and depends on me having a gentle perspective of my state of being. There is no happiness when I am working from a place of defence.

And nothing makes me defensive as quickly as not sleeping properly

However, I am learning more and more about how my body and my mind are intricately woven together each day. This opportunity to be a little less ignorant and a little more responsible for my words actions is a gift.

And hence, when I see the students being led by tired teachers to a belief that sleep is almost an enemy of a good life, I feel helpless and afraid for them. They joke about their sleep-deprivation, but I can’t bring myself to laugh.

Yet, I can make sure that when I turn up on a Monday morning, I am awake

And sometimes, when someone is tired, I can say something gentle with the hope it might one day sink in. When the teacher didn’t turn up the class decided that I would have to teach them instead. Thankfully I’d got a good night’s sleep and was feeling suitably creative so I set about improvising a class.

After quizzing everyone on their sleep I asked if anyone could remember dreaming the previous night. Two hands shot into the air. I smiled, took a deep breath and surmised that it was interesting that the two people in the class who had slept their eight hours had also remembered having dreams. A coincidence perhaps, or…

But that’s another article.

So, just to summarise what I’ve written here

  1. Sleepiness pervades society, making us all a little more stupid.
  2. The teenagers I teach are sleep-deprived and don’t see the connection with their own mental health.
  3. I am luckier, my luck is the gift of awareness. Sometimes, not always but sometimes, I can recognise my unkindness as stemming from too few hours steadily sleeping.

The book ‘Why We Sleep’ is surprisingly non-lecturing

It’s sometimes even apologetic about the truths it breaks. It’s not one of these books that’s repetitive and fluffy. The author has a scientific way with words, being clear about causation and correlation and although the information he shares is sometimes horrifying, it doesn’t come across as sensationalist.

At the back of the book Matthew Walker includes a reprint of this list of tips for a better night’s sleep.4 You might want to check them out. After all, would you be happier if you got a little more sleep?

More information

  1. The Art of the Siesta by Thierry Paquot (Translated from French). I apparently only rated it 3 stars on Goodreads so don’t consider this as a recommendation.
  2. An article on how the Spanish don’t read (in Spanish) I tried searching Google in English but only got results about Brexit…
  3. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
  4. Tips on Sleep

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