A looming midterm or final examination has always triggered the belief among the young that if only they could spend the entire night awake and studying, they would redeem themselves the next day from a semester of excess sociability. An all-nighter, to qualify, must be intentional. A bout of night-long insomnia does not count. Nor does the experience of a young woman I know who fell asleep in the deepest recesses of a large graduate library, only to awake to silence and utter darkness. Slowly, she worked her way along the stacks, through doorways and downstairs to the deserted lobby, where she felt her way to a telephone. Dialing in the blackness, she reached campus security, which sent bemused officers to unlock the library and escort her home from her unintended all-nighter.
The venue of an all-nighter is significant. I have heard of students preparing for a gross-anatomy final who foolishly chose to study in the lab. As the long night wore on, the silence grew ominous, and the resident cadavers began to seem like less-than-agreeable companions. At around 3 a.m., a couple of the students heard strange noises. Hastily packing their book bags, the group declared the all-nighter successfully concluded and hurried home to bed.
My students, of course, are pulling all-nighters even as I write. They crawl into class dazed and glazed, hair hastily tugged in all directions, body language warning of impending coma. Occasionally, my assignments are the cause of this dreadful sleep deprivation. No amount of reasoning convinces these young people that last month's assignment of an eight-page essay, due today, was not the direct, inexorable cause of their just-completed all-nighter. Almost every one of them, I am assured, "thinks better under pressure." So my efforts to get them to start early, to discuss topics with me in advance, to show me sample drafts are bound to fail. Even the week before the due date is too soon for their creative juices to flow.
Apparently, waiting until the night before the paper is due elicits the perfect mix of insight and tension. My students put on the coffeepot, wait for inspiration, scribble a bit, drop in a few quotations from the texts we are reading, tack on a few 4-a.m. insights, watch the sun come up, and run over to the computer center, hoping that a printer will be free and working. They hand in these gems, confident that I will be bowled over by the dazzling ideas that glitter in every paragraph.
When I get around to reading the essays, I can almost pinpoint the hour at which certain sentences -- mushy, wandering, and chaotic -- were formed. As one idea slides illogically into another, I can practically see a clock registering 3:45 a.m. Ah, here's a sentence that looks like 4:30. I never write such comments on students' papers, of course, because I could be wrong. But sometimes, when I am talking to them about their grades -- a C-, a D, or, heaven help us, an F -- I let slip my impression that a passage we are both struggling to decipher might have been written at 4 in the morning. I usually am rewarded by an embarrassed admission that, yes, that was nearly the exact time. How did I know?
One result of these insights about my students' work is an uncomfortable revisionist sense of how my own college masterpieces -- generated and polished in classic dusk-to-dawn sessions -- must have struck my long-suffering instructors. I see those instructors now as charitable to the extreme, men and women who had glimpsed some redeeming grace, some wisp of an idea embedded in my wandering prose. Either that or they had dozed off in the reading, and woke to conclude that my essay couldn't possibly have been as bad as they remembered.
I am also reminded of the last all-nighter I ever pulled, a fiasco intended to atone for weeks of ignoring textbooks and class lectures. Like students past and present, I had neglected my studies, occasionally for the pleasures of social contact at The Shack or The Stables, but more often to work two jobs, one at the local radio station, the other editing the student newspaper. My shift at the radio station ran from 6 a.m., when I got us on the air with "The Star-Spangled Banner," to noon, when I handed the mike over to another announcer during the midday hog-and-cattle report.
After a quick lunch I'd mosey over to campus to play head rabble-rouser on the student weekly. After a few hours of writing inflammatory copy and raking the available muck, I would go home. Sometimes I might squeeze in an hour with my textbooks, but usually not.
To make my busy life more manageable, I had dropped one five-hour course a month into the semester. Ten hours seemed more civilized -- until the pressures of midsemester and a special issue of the paper interfered with even that relaxed schedule. I visited my sweet and sympathetic professor of sociology, who agreed to give me half of the three-hour course credit based on the work I had already done. That seemed eminently fair, and I left his office certain that I could now do a good job on my remaining two courses.
But the mills of the gods were grinding still. A day came when I saw no escape from my hour-long English exam. I spun my records and burbled my way through the morning shift at the radio station. I even went to class in the afternoon -- maybe the professor would say something useful about the next day's examination.
But I had a newspaper to put out, and I spent that evening writing and rewriting stories, thinking up clever headlines, and fitting copy. I didn't get home until almost 2 in the morning, and I had to be up by 5:30 to get to the station by 6. Sleep? I was already well on my way to an all-nighter. Better to use my time efficiently, reading my yet-unopened copy of Vanity Fair and understanding something of Becky Sharp's character (a broad hint dropped by my English teacher). When dawn cracked, I wasn't more than 90 pages in, but I could tell what sort our Becky was. She threw Dr. Johnson's Dictionary out the window, didn't she? I showered, washed down a stale muffin with instant coffee, and drove out to the station.
My self-congratulations about how much I had accomplished by staying up all night were shattered by my inability to open the door at the radio station. Try as I might, I could not get the key to work. I took it out of the lock. I inserted it again. It wouldn't turn. Frustrated by the unfairness of it all, I leaned my head gently against the window in the door. Evidently, I did not lean it gently enough. My head went through the glass, and warm blood spurted all over.
I managed to extract the key, get back to my car, and drive, despite the coursing blood, to a friend's house a mile away. A former Army tank sergeant, he knew what to do, even at 6 in the morning. He drove me to the Student Health Service and cut right through the nurse's insistence that I fill out the forms. "Lady, forget the #*%#@ forms! Look at the #*%#@ blood!" She wheeled me into an operating theater, and a passing surgeon put a dozen or so stitches in my scalp.
They kept me for observation long after my English exam was over, which was too bad. I'm sure I could have aced the question on Becky Sharp. On the other hand, I had a wonderful 12 hours of sleep.
As anyone with a functioning mind might have surmised, the reluctant key was my house key, not the radio-station key. And the station, an innocent party in all of this, had to explain to a skeptical F.C.C. why "The Star-Spangled Banner" did not air on that fateful morning until well past the dawn's early light.
Joel J. Gold is a professor of English at the University of Kansas.