One regular occurrence of my boyhood weekends used to be the appearance outdoors of my early-rising father, a passionate gardener, as soon as direct sunlight hit the yard. If I had chanced to “sleep in” (till eight), he would tend the part of the garden outside my bedroom window, loudly singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” I don’t think he really intended to propagandize the joys of getting up early, but whether by habituation or genetics, I ended up an early riser too, except in New York City, where one point of pride in college seniors is that none of their classes begin before eleven. A late-rising former colleague of mine was horrified to hear when I usually got up when not in New York: she referred to four and five as the f-hours and six and seven as the s-hours.
Most teenagers are her soulmates. This identification was particularly strong among my Egyptian students when I taught in Alexandria. Egyptians start their dinner between ten and midnight, and one of my favorite restaurants there, King of Quails, didn’t even open till ten or so. During Ramadan most Egyptians stay up well into the night, many of them only going to sleep after the public waker-up cries the approach of the pre-dawn prayer call, a Muslim’s last chance for food or drink till sundown. To Egyptian teenagers, he is not a waker-up but a settler-down.
One day these same night-owls were in my English class as we read in Walden Henry David Thoreau’s paean to rising early. They were also urbanites and strongly convinced that the country is a dusty sort of place where birds fly around uncooked and spitting cobras lie in wait to teach urbanites the foolishness of venturing outside the city limits. The idea that someone could choose to leave the city and go to the country seemed by itself deeply unsound, but they lost all patience on hearing Thoreau praise the delights of dawn. They dismissed him as a lunatic.
I don’t think this horror among teenagers of early rising is a strictly Egyptian phenomenon. My current English students, generally a very good bunch, are always at their worst of the week when their lesson falls during first and second period, and so I always have to proceed more slowly then than at other times. When I taught at schools where each course met at the same hour every day, I could always tell the difference between my first-period class and the others. The one place where this phenomenon was generally less noticeable was the school that began at 9:00.
So I was predisposed to say Amen to an article discussing the growing movement to push back the opening hour at school; but the Amen is qualified. As I recently noted, American students suffer inordinate sleep deprivation and consequent dumbing-down of their lessons because they work their gadgets when they should be sleeping or preparing to sleep. Even the article about pushing back school opening hours posed its student-protagonist in bed using her mobile phone. If there is not a way to keep gadgets shut off at night, a later starting time for school could just end up leading to a later bedtime for gadget-wielding students.