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Lee Skallerup Bessette Headshot

Who Needs Sleep? One Professor 'Fesses Up

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For some of you, this is the first month of school. You're full of enthusiasm and energy, ready to take on the world. For me, we've been back at school for almost three weeks. Standing in front of my once bright-eyed, now baggy-eyed students, I am reminded how important sleep is for young undergraduates. It may only be week three, but I am already getting a number of emails from students who are missing class because of sickness, handing in work that was obviously done under less-than-ideal conditions and falling asleep right in front of me.

I think there is more than a little karmic payback going on; as an undergraduate, I was an admittedly terrible student. My grades were fine, but my classroom behavior was less than respectful. If I even managed to show up. All this because I barely slept. Eight hours? Try four or five hours, if I was lucky, starting at three or four in the morning. I was living the undergraduate dream: no parents, no curfew and an endless supply of willing partners-in-crime. When I was having trouble showing up on time for an afternoon class starting at one, I knew I was in trouble.

My entire first semester, I was fighting a nagging cold that never seemed to go away. It might have stopped me or slowed me down one night every few weeks, but I pushed myself forward, soldiering on through midnight hockey games and subsequent late-night eating binges. I also missed a lot of classes and the classes where I did show up, I was nursing as large a coffee as I could find. Sometimes two. I paid the price.

When I went home for Christmas, I was sick the entire time. And not just a little sick. I was in bed, completely miserable for my whole trip home. My mom took good care of me and sent me back to school with a massive amount of over-the-counter medicines, immune system boosters and vitamins. But she couldn't make me sleep. As soon as I got back to campus, my body retreated into the pattern I had trained it follow. Even if I wanted to, I could never fall asleep before three or four in the morning.

I would lie in bed, my mind racing; I could never calm down. The blackout curtains in our residence rooms didn't help because it meant that my body couldn't correct itself naturally with sunlight. I was starting to be able to sleep in, but the later I slept in, the later I would stay awake at night. The problem became especially brutal when I was working nine-to-five at a regular job during the summers: a zombie all day at work, yet still unable to fall asleep at night.

My educational experience was poorer as a result. In graduate school, books, stories and information that I knew I had read as an undergraduate were completely absent from my memory. Going back over the essays I had written, I wondered how I had even made it through my degree at all, let alone gotten accepted into grad school. I actually emailed some of my professors to apologize for my behavior and shoddy work. At one point as an undergraduate, when I received an A on a paper I had written in a sleep-deprived haze, I emailed one of my professors in shock, asking him if he had read the same paper I had written. He said that although it was extremely sloppy, it had a lot of good ideas and insights. He told me I had a lot of potential. I was just too sleep-deprived to see it fully realized at the time.

I am the teacher now, and a mom. I see my students in the same state as I was in while in their exact position. I want to tell them to calm down and take care of themselves: sleep, eat well, and de-stress in healthy ways, rather than "blowing off steam" the way undergrads typically do. Find ways to calm your body and your mind so you don't just do well in school, but actually learn something in the process. The purpose of the university is to acquire knowledge, something that is almost impossible to do when your brain is running on energy drinks and little else. It took me until grad school to realize all that I had missed out on because I never got my poor sleep habits under control. I know most of my students probably won't get the chance until much later to see the lost opportunity while they thought it was better to sleep when they were dead.