The sleep of the unjust

When my own children were babies, sleep was a sacred thing, so I rarely roused the students who conked out in my class (unless he or she were snoring). But that was a long time ago and I have since made a stand against napping.

One bright morning, five weeks into this term, I walked into my developmental English classroom and greeted the students as usual. Sam, his eyes on me, was resting his head on the desk. After arranging my folders and books, I asked him to sit up because we were about to begin. Shooing me away with one hand, he muttered: "Don't worry about me. It's early. I'm just waking up."

I had tolerated Sam's rudeness for a month. What was it that tipped me over the edge that morning?

"We're starting. You have to sit up."

"Don't fuss about me."

I swallowed my anger as well as I could, then said: "Let's go outside and talk."

None of the students gasped at this request or seemed to pick up on how riled I was (perhaps they were too sleepy). Such dramatic call-outs feel alien to me. My impulse is to hash out disagreements in the public forum of the classroom, but that has never worked out very well either.

Sam followed me out of the classroom door.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"I'm a solo act," he said. "No one in there is worrying about me, so you shouldn't either. I'll do my job and you do yours."

"You're distracting me and your classmates."

"I'm not distracting them."

"If you showed up for a job and put your head down, that would not be acceptable."

"I don't have a job and I wouldn't take a job like that."

"Why not?"

"I've got personal issues, OK?"

What could I say to that?

"So do all of us, Sam. You're not going to sleep or putting your head down in my classroom."

"It shouldn't concern you if I'm sleeping or not. I have a hard time waking up and you should give me time."

"Go somewhere else to sleep and come to class when you're awake."

"You can't make me leave that classroom."

"No, but I can call security to take you out of it."

I was ashamed of myself as soon as I said it. I would never do that. The worst I would do is peevishly ignore him. But what if another student then put their head down.and another? I don't know.

Maybe I should just let sleeping dogs lie.

I looked at my watch. "I'm going back to class. This is what I call a distraction. We have wasted five minutes of the lesson already."

"That was your choice, Professor."

Was I furious or just disappointed in the pair of us? Sam knew. He could read my face.

"All right," he said. "I'll go somewhere to sleep. I'll come back in 45 minutes."

Sam didn't come back to class until the next day. He didn't speak to me until the next week. He didn't lie down on the job again, but I never felt quite right about it.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in New York City

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