Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

David Shribman

You'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to

Wish me luck. I'm about to wade into one of the most contentious debates in America. That would be the fight over what time the kids should get up in the morning.

Let me declare my prejudices in this matter. It has long been a conviction of mine that no one ever accomplished anything by sleeping in. Scientists will tell you that sleep is a very important part of good health. Probably true. But I believe that sleep is something we have to do so that we can get up and do something more important.

I know I'm going to be deluged by blistering mail and angry calls from people who will argue that sleep is like wine, one of nature's special, unfathomable treats, something to be treasured. I can buy that, but only if we remember that sleep is a means, not an end. We sleep to live well. We don't live well to sleep.

All of this has some moment because my public school district is entertaining a proposal to start school later so that the selfless scholars can rest up and be ready for the rigors of their day - calculus, civics, biology, instant messaging. There's lots of scientific evidence to suggest that teens need a lot of sleep - indeed, a lot more sleep than they get.

Ordinarily I think scientific evidence is a pretty compelling commodity. But something about this debate leaves me feeling ill at ease.

So here's the nub of the question and the central problem of this morning's column: What do you do when, in cases like this, scientific evidence and common sense collide?

Here's the scientific case: Kids are dead tired, and the evidence is the way they droop in first period. A 2002 study, by Kyla Wahlstrom, the associate director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, examined what happened when the Minneapolis school system moved starting times from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40.

The study found that students kept to their customary bedtimes but slept later, providing them with a net increase of about an hour more sleep. Attendance rates for high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors increased. (Seniors are hopeless no matter what their bedtimes and rising times are.)

Now here's the common-sense case: The world rises early. The ultimate destination for these students, the workplace, is unforgiving; employers who need work done at a certain (early) hour don't commission studies examining how much sleep their workers get and then mold the job to the findings. (Otherwise there would be no one on the early hospital shift, no one baking the day's bread, no one reading the news on the radio at drive time.) This is a society with lots of challenges and problems. We could use an extra hour's attention to them and an extra hour's devotion to solving them.

It's that last bit that I find particularly hard to dismiss. Bill Clinton used to say that in this country we didn't have a person to waste. Let me adjust that and say that we don't have an hour to waste.

I know that it's possible to reduce my argument to absurdity and to argue that people shouldn't sleep at all. But I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that we ought not to send the signal that a little extra comfort in the snoozy early hours of the morning is a good thing if it makes our children feel better.

There's no evidence whatsoever for my point of view, just instinct. The best I can do is to cite Benjamin Franklin's maxim about early to bed and early to rise and hope that the school authorities believe that that is the prescription for being healthy, wealthy, and wise. (I've followed this advice and am batting .333, though my mother, like yours, says that if you have your health you've got everything.) History and contemporary events offer no help. President Bush gets up early. Vladimir Putin sleeps till 11. Even I can't argue that that explains why the United States is still a superpower and Russia is not.

Then there's the famous example of Winston Churchill. He was an overachiever for the ages, and he often slept in and then - and you can guess how this rankles me - he often worked in his bedclothes. But let me point out that Churchill lived a pampered life from the crib to the grave, always having someone around to clean up and make supper and shovel the snow. I believe it is true that not once in his life did he dress himself.

Nice work if you can get it. You can't. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower couldn't. His grandson, David, now a senior research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, remembers spending weeks with President Eisenhower and always - always - being awakened by the president before daybreak. "His mental effectiveness," his grandson remembers, "was at its peak in the morning."

I like the morning hours, and not only because, as you know, the tranquility is seldom broken by teenagers, who are of course sleeping in. I like them because an early start is a fresh start, because turning up late for the day is a like strolling into a drama that's already begun, and because life is too interesting to miss even an hour of it. "To be awake," Henry David Thoreau said, "is to be alive."

We've all heard stories about people saying on their death bed that they wished they had more time to read, that they wished they had more time to paint, that they wished they had more time to play the piano, mostly that they wished they had more time to spend with their friends, or with their spouse, or with their children.

I've never heard of anyone facing death who said he wished he'd had more time to sleep. Get up, and get on with it.

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