Published in Newsweek, "My Turn," September 20, 1999

Surviving a Year of Sleepless Nights

by Jenny Hung

"Taking honors classes and getting straight A’s made me a success. But it didn’t make me happy."

NOW A HIGH-SCHOOL SENIOR, I still remember my freshman year with a shudder; it was the year my friends and I joked about as the “Year of Sleepless Nights.” It wasn’t that I had contracted a rare sleeping disorder or suffered from a bad case of insomnia that particular year; in fact, nothing could have been farther from the truth. I had done what many diligent students do: sacrifice precious sleep for the sake of academic success.

Don’t get me wrong; my parents never mandated that I take all the honors classes I could gain admission to. No one told me to take three honors classes. No one, that is, except the little voice in my head that convinced me scholarly success was based upon the number of “H’s” on my high-school transcript. The counselors cautioned me not to do it, students who had fallen into the trap before warned me against it and my parents just left it up to me. Through it all, I just smiled and reassured them, “Don’t worry; I can handle it.” The trouble was, I didn’t have the slightest idea what lay ahead.

I soon found myself mired in work. For a person whose friends teased her about being a neat freak, I grew increasingly messy. My room and desk looked like my backpack had exploded. There was no time to talk to friends on the phone, not even on the weekends. Going to bed at midnight was a luxury, 1 a.m. was normal, 3 a.m. meant time to panic and 4 a.m. meant it was time to go to sleep defeated. Most days, I would shuffle clumsily from class to class with sleep-clouded eyes and nod off during classroom lectures. There was even a month in winter when I was so self-conscious of my raccoon eyes that I wore sunglasses to school.

My parents applauded my academic success, but hardly knew the price I paid for it. I vividly remember one night when my mother couldn’t fall asleep. She kept going to bed and getting up again. Every time I heard her get up, I’d turn off my light so she wouldn’t catch me still awake. By 5 o’clock that morning, I was so sleepy that I didn’t hear her footsteps as she shuffled down the hallway. When she saw the light under my door, she came in and demanded to know why I wasn’t sleeping. That was when I knew I was defeated for the night. My mother frowned at me with concern, and I no longer had the strength or energy to resist the temptation to rest. I woke up two hours later and got dressed for school.

Despite the sleep-deprived state I constantly lived in, the A’s kept coming home on my report card, and my homework was always turned in on time. I caught up on my sleep in what little spare time I could snatch on the weekends. I had created my own hell, and I was determined to endure until I could get myself out of it.

By the time my freshman year ended, I was rewarded for my hard work. My school held an academic assembly in May, and posters naming the top 10 students in each grade dangled from the ceiling. And there, on the top of the freshman list, I saw: “1.) Jenny Hung GPA: 4.43.” The sight of my name on that list was gratifying after all the hard work I had poured into getting it up there, but it also made me think. Was that position really that important to me? Did I want to remember high school as nights without sleep and days of work? Sure, the weight of the medal felt good in my hand, but it didn’t mean much. That I would remain at the top of that list was doubtful, and in the end, the paper of the poster was biodegradable. There can only be one valedictorian in each class, and that person usually has to work his fingers to the bone against fierce competition to claim that position. That life, I decided, was not for me.

When sophomore year came around, I chose my classes carefully. The honors classes didn’t completely disappear from my transcript, but they weren’t as plentiful as before. I found myself busy with all the extracurricular activities that began to fill up my days. My friends no longer thought of me as the outsider who slept through lunchtime gossip. I felt the joy of holding a yearbook I helped to create, and spent hours on the phone comforting a friend who had burst into tears over her dropping grades.

After all these experiences, I frown when I hear my classmates tell stories about their parents’ pressuring them to do well in school. Sometimes I wonder if their parents understand what lengths their children go to so they can sport bumper stickers on their cars proclaiming MY CHILD GOES TO HARVARD! If that’s the case, they need to learn what my parents and I have learned: academic success means nothing if your heart isn’t into earning it, and in the end, books will always fail to teach you as much as life itself.

HUNG lives in southern California.

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