My 7-year-old currently claims that he has a hard time falling asleep. He’s not lying exactly. The other night, I sat next to his bed in the too-small-for-a-grown-up beanbag chair, waiting for him to nod off. He tossed, turned, tossed some more. Finally, I squeezed in next to him. He cuddled into the crook of my arm; within minutes, he was asleep—and so was I.
Last night, the same thing happened, except that I woke up at 1:36 a.m. and then couldn’t go back to sleep. Groggy, I trudged down the hallway in search of the comfort of my own bed, my familiar pillow. Yet as my husband snored peacefully, I tossed, turned, tossed some more. I remained awake for the rest of the night.
My students are currently engaged in an inquiry on a word—choose an abstract word, then research, read, and write about it in a definition essay. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that some of our most contentious debates in society today are really arguments over definitions—how we define words like freedom and equality, protest and patriotism.
The word insomnia seems like a good choice for me these days.
I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. My colleague tells me it’s a symptom of approaching middle-age (really? are we there already?). I was thinking about this definition essay assignment as I tried to fall back asleep, which led me to think about another assignment for a different class, an upcoming unit plan I need to finish, a reading I have to photocopy in the morning.
Once my teacher-brain got started, I couldn’t stop thinking. And the frustration of not being able to go back to sleep was almost unbearable. I wish there was mute button, a dial I could turn to off. Instead, I started to think about all the things that keep me up at night.
Of course, these days, a better question might be, what doesn’t keep me up at night? There’s my family, who are healthy and happy, but if life has taught me anything, it’s that health and happiness are not to be taken for granted. There’s work, and as teachers everywhere know, there’s always something to be worried about when it comes to school: the papers I need to grade, the emails I have to return, the student I’ve been meaning to check in on. And then there’s the world we live in right now. Every time I scroll through my news feed or listen to the radio (I’ve long ago abandoned any television news), I grow increasingly horrified and enraged at the blatant rise in racism and misogyny, bigotry and hatred.
What really keeps me up at night, though, is knowing that none of this hatred is new—that it’s always been there, festering beneath the surface but manifesting itself in racist policies and institutions that have stood in plain sight for as long as America has been America. When the Charlottesville tragedy happened in August, as I looked at the photographs of all those well-groomed young men in their khakis and white polos—I saw the people some of our students might one day become. It’s hard to imagine, but the truth is that all those young men, filled with resentment and hate—each of those young men sat in classrooms, had (I assume) good and well-meaning teachers, took U. S. history and government, read great literature, spent time learning alongside other human beings.
And yet, there they were with their torches.
As my students ponder their words to research for their definition essay, I’ve been coming up with my own list—privilege, oppression, silence. These are the words that keep me up at night. I ponder my privilege: growing up in the relative comfort of middle-class suburban life, I didn’t think about the ways in which my privilege could mean another person’s oppression, that silence is never a neutral position.
So I’ve been suffering from insomnia, kept awake by all the things that go bump in the night. But maybe I’ve been looking at all this the wrong way. After all, just beneath the definition of insomnia are its synonyms. And among them, there’s wakefulness—a word which reminds me of my dear friend and fellow teacher Kim Parker who, at last year’s Don Graves breakfast at NCTE, told a crowded room filled with educators: “I believe in rage and I believe in action. I believe in a world where staying woke matters.”
Staying woke matters.
I couldn’t agree more.