Thursday, August 18, 2011

Get Some Sleep, or How I Learned To Stop Caffeinating and Survive Higher Education

In ten short days, I will be back at Bennington College for my senior year. Thank the lard. I’ve been going to college since I was 17. I’ll be 23 when I graduate. In all that time I like to think I’ve figured out how to navigate higher education while still being a (moderately) healthy and sane person. I count last year as my first full year of truly being 100% semi-functional. The proof: I only kind of related to Liz Lemon in that episode of 30 Rock where she pulls that all-nighter and yells, “YOU DO NOT CROSS A SUGAR BAKER WOMAN. AND THIS IS MY HOUSE. I’m so tired you guys, I’m so tired.” This is not to say I didn’t come close to that, or that it wasn’t hard. It was really hard. It was one of the hardest years of my life, academically and personally. But the success here is that any sickness I contracted was brief and didn’t disrupt my work; I had significantly fewer breakdowns that usual (I could count them on one hand if I had to); and I had a record number of breakthroughs about my work and my relationships with others that gave me invaluable perspective to hold onto when life wasn’t so easy. In the last two years at Bennington, I have learned a lot about how to deal, and a lot of it I wish I had known going in. So for all the little freshman out there, particularly the little freshman at Bennington, I am handing you my hard-won wisdom in the hopes that you’ll get to a better place faster.

1. It is possible to go an entire term without any all-nighters. And to make it to every meal. And to not get so sick that you want to fake your own death so that you don’t have to deal with this crap anymore.

My first year at community college/senior year of high school, I made myself sick from all-nighters. I had not yet grasped the concept of time-management, which ended up with me getting no sleep up to 3 nights every week. At about 4 in the morning, my personality would split and have the following conversation: “Meg. It’s ok. You’re doing so well.” “So tired. Poem. What? Tequitos?” “Shh, it’s going to be ok. Let’s go make some tequitos and tea. We’re just going to get up very slowly, put the tequitos in the microwave, and everything will feel better.” “Ok. Foot. Tequitos. Poem. Feel better.”

Five years later, I go to a school where we don’t have extracurriculars because a) we like to make them up ourselves and b) we just don’t have that kind of time. And I still get at least 6 hours of sleep every night, even during finals. This is definitely not a typical scenario, but the stress I put on my body during my first couple years of college exacerbated my congenital heart condition; a year and a half after I graduated from high school, I had to get my pulmonary valve replaced. Now, I try to be kinder to my body. I eat a lot of garlic (so good for your immune system), drink a lot of echinacea tea (sickness is terrified of echinacea), work hard when I’m working, and take breaks when I need them. I organize my time, I make lists, I eat my vegetables.

It really all just comes down to: eat your vegetables, get some sleep, and don’t be a dumb ass about how you manage your time. College really is different from high school. There’s no way around it. You will suffer as you figure it all out, but you don’t have to get sick in the process. I have seen a lot of intelligent people screw up their bodies and their brains by not sleeping, not eating (or eating a lot of nasty junk), and abusing prescription drugs like adderall to get through their work. This is so unnecessary, and you have no excuse for treating your mind/body (SAME THING) like a garbage disposal for sodium and death. Steer clear of the adderall and take a five hour nap if you really want to get things done.

2. Figure out your limits.

I know now that my first year at Bennington was really all about figuring out my limits. My time at Pierce College and Montgomery College had been about testing my limits; how many Smithsonian internships could I fit into a year? Would the women’s studies department let me get away with doing an independent study on the American cultural history of menstruation? How many friends could I make by eating lunch with the smokers and potheads? (The answers: two, yes, and quite a few.) But Bennington has been all about realizing when and if I want to say no. Had I known that at the time, I might have spent more time consciously working them out so that some limits might not have taken so long.

It only took one term to figure out my limit for drinking; I know now how much is too much and how often is too often. It took me three terms to figure out how much toxicity in a friendship I can handle before I decide to let it go. Three terms to realize that no matter how hard I push the limits of what I study at Bennington, my Plan committee is There For Me and will do their best to help me learn what I need to learn. Four terms to figure out how much of myself I want to give to friendships that are never going to give as much back. Four terms to understand that trivializing my accomplishments is sometimes ok to keep hubris in check, but mostly needs a limit to prevent emotional suicide. One term to realize there is no limit to the amount of rice crispy treats you should smuggle out of the dining hall on hot dog day.

We all have different limits, but as you subject yourself to one of the most raw and exciting times of your life, just be aware that there are limits to be found.

3. That grade doesn't always mean what you think it means.

At Bennington, you actually have to request grades if you want them. Otherwise, it’s a pass/fail system. How well we do is based on our faculty evaluations. I grew up getting straight As; I only ever had one B, and that was for an Italian class I took at a community college when I was 14, so I figured getting a B on a college level course when I was barely out of middle school was actually pretty ok. My first spring at Bennington, I got an essay back from my faculty advisor with a big fat B, aka "epic fail" written on it. As I walked back home and reluctantly read her comments, I realized that next to all the criticism were suggestions for how I could do better next time. This can’t have been the first time a professor made encouraging suggestions instead of just listing why I didn’t get an A, but it was the first time in my life that I didn’t see my mistakes as personal failings; they were just part of the process in fully understanding the material. I realized that my whole life, my entire self-worth as a student was based on whether or not I got an A. Not on what I actually learned.

It sounds really simple, but I never understood until then that you have to make a mess of stuff before you can make something beautiful out of it, and that letter grades are wholly incapable of expressing the intricacies of this process. I am telling you the truth when I say that at first, everything is going to be hard and you are going to be criticized more than you will be praised. In the end, whatever grade you get can never fully reflect whether or not you learned to utilize that criticism and take it in stride; whether you learned the material, and didn’t just memorize it long enough to survive the term; and whether you tried to connect what you were learning with your bigger academic and personal picture. I have received a lot of As for classes that I put minimal effort into, and got very little out of. But the one C I got was for a class that changed my life; that C reflects only the confusion of my essays as I tried to process everything I was learning; it doesn’t reflect how hard I worked, how frequently I met with the professor to get help with my work, what I actually learned, or how I am still using what I learned in that class in my everyday life and work. The only thing that C really tells you that my mid-term essay was really badly organized and the rest of my grade suffered because of that one paper. (Also, there were only two major essays assigned in that course, which doesn’t really help a girl out when it comes to grade percentages.) So, when I send my transcript to grad schools or employers after I graduate, unless they also read my course evaluations, all they’re going to know about me is whatever tiny bit of information my letter grades can tell them. Sometimes an A doesn’t mean you were spectacular. Sometimes it just means that you’re good at memorizing stuff and that you showed up.

My biggest advice to you is to not measure the success of your education by your letter grades or awards. Ultimately, those things don’t mean much if you can’t actually use the knowledge they represent to improve your field. If you really want to get something out of your education, measure it by how hard you work, by how much you learn, and by how you use the criticism of others to improve.

In short: Get some sleep. Set some limits. Learn what you can. Regret very little.


  1. Meg, I love this. So much.

  2. Many often overlook the importance of sleep when it comes to our health. It should not be ignored.

    Can’t Fall Asleep? Tips To Help If You Can’t Sleep

  3. This is actually really beautiful. What a fantastic blog post! Thanks for the advice!! I'll be sure to keep it all in mind during my first term here at Bennington. You're awesome.

  4. I learned that too back in college. Coffee became dispensable and I found out that I do not have to cram late at nights.