In college, I pulled exactly one all-nighter. My freshman year, I stayed up to study for a final calculus exam. I’d never been one to stay up late, so by midnight I was a sloppy, slurry mess; by three a.m. I couldn’t have articulated the difference between an asymptote and a derivative; and by the time I fell into bed for a catnap before the exam, I’d forgotten all the math I’d ever known. I bombed the exam, and were it not for a compassionate professor, I’d still have a failing grade on my final transcript.
Thinking clearly is virtually impossible if we are tired.
Several years ago, a student enrolled in our school after an indescribable and difficult journey that led her and her mother to an apartment in our attendance area. On her first day, Alysia was ghost-like, all dark circles and blank eyes. She was fierce, though, in everything she did—in her glare as I met her at the front doors, in her combative reaction to peers, in her rude eye-roll to her teacher, in her stomping and flouncing around. When I stopped by to check in mid-morning, the teacher, a wildly patient and loving soul, looked like she’d been through a tornado.
“Why don’t you let me talk to her,” I told the teacher. “I’ll sit down with her and see if I can get some ideas for handling the few days while she gets used to being here.” The teacher nodded, and told me Alysia would come to the office after lunch.
Alas, just as the teacher sent Alysia to my office, I got called to help in another classroom. My secretary got her settled in a seat until I could get back. Soon afterwards, I turned into my office and was stopped in my tracks by Alysia, sprawled awkwardly on a chair, sound asleep.
I tiptoed out and let her be.
Several hours later, I heard her rustle around and went in. She was sheepish and sullen as her eyes fluttered open and met mine.
“You were pretty tired,” I said.
“I don’t blame you one little bit,” I told her. “I’m glad you found a way to get some rest.” We chatted awhile, and when I felt she was relaxing a bit, I showed her the picture I’d snapped at her as she slept. “This is what a tired kid looks like.” We both smiled. “You don’t look comfortable there in that chair, but something must have worked for you.”
“I’m pretty tired,” she admitted.
After school the teacher and I talked about it. “She’s a sweet kid,” I said. “She’s just worn out, I think.”
“What should I do?” the teacher asked.
“I don’t see that we have a choice,” I told her. “She is exhausted… and her body needs to heal. I think we should find a way for her to get some rest.”
The next morning, the teacher moved a few seats around, making room for a big and fluffy beanbag chair in the dark, calm corner beside the bookshelves. She told Alysia it was all right for her to rest there anytime. “Whenever your eyes get heavy, or your mind doesn’t know what to do next, go take a seat on this chair. It’s a good place to rest,” she said.
For several days, Alysia spent more time asleep at school than she did awake. By week’s end, though, the teacher felt she was waking up, both figuratively and literally. She started to participate. She tentatively found herself among books, learned some characters she loved. Over time, she recovered from whatever ordeal had worn her out, and started to show interest and willingness to join the class activities. Day by day, her stamina increased and she revealed herself to be a whip-smart student with creative ideas and a mind like a sponge.
If we are tired—the kind of tired that can only be healed with sleep and time—there really is no sense in trying to push through. I’m not talking about the typical kid-tired thing, where a little challenge and adrenalin can help them get up and moving; I’m talking about the kind of tired where it’s impossible to think clearly. The kind of tired that isn’t fixed by a good night’s sleep or a weekend nap. When the body is ready to shut down, we need to listen and provide a way to give it what it needs.